U.S. Full Faith and Credit Clause Overrides State Public Policy Exception: 

When Monetary Judgments Are Involved

    Under South Carolina’s Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (“UEFJA”), where a judgment is made in another state’s courts, and that judgment is filed in this state, it shall “[have] the same effect and [be] subject to the same defenses as a judgment of this State and must be enforced or satisfied in like manner.”  S.C. Code Ann. § 15-35-920(C)(emphasis added).  What this means is that a decision by a court in North Carolina, Texas, or any other state must be upheld by the courts in South Carolina.  The reasoning behind this is evident: it would be poor practice to have state courts undermining each other.  On a more practical level, a person should not be able to avoid a court judgment simply by moving to a new state.  The UEFJA does contain an interesting caveat, however.  “The provisions of this article do not apply to foreign judgments based on claims which are contrary to the public policies of this state.”  § 15-35-960.  Translated, if it goes against what we believe, we don’t need to honor it.  

    So how does this apply?  Let’s say, for example, a person fails to make their credit card payments and judgment is awarded in favor of the credit card company in a North Dakota court for the amount of the debt.  If that person moves to South Carolina, under the UEFJA, he or she is still bound by the North Dakota judgment to make those payments.  A court order to pay a credit card debt does not offend South Carolina public policy.  If, however, another person is awarded equitable judgment in Colorado allowing him or her to grow marijuana for medicinal dispensaries, and he or she subsequently moves to South Carolina, they will not be permitted to grow marijuana in this State.  Since growing marijuana in South Carolina is against the law and against public policy, the UEFJA does not require the State to honor and uphold the Colorado state court judgment.  Between these two simplified hypothetical examples, aside from the subject matter of the judgments, there is another glaring difference: money.  The first has a monetary judgment whereas the second is an equitable judgment allowing for an action to take place.   The Supreme Court of South Carolina recently considered the issue of whether this State, under the UEFJA, would uphold a monetary judgment that may run against public policy.  In an extremely narrowly written decision, the Court found that it would.

    In Windenhouse v. Colson, the Supreme Court of South Carolina considered whether a North Carolina judgment awarding $266,000 to Sue Windehouse would be enforced where the losing party, Tammy Colson, moved to Greenville, SC.  The catch was that the North Carolina judgment was based on the grounds of alienation of affection and criminal conversation, two intentional tortious acts that were abolished in South Carolina as causes of action.  Alienation of affections involved breaking up a marriage and criminal conversation was the cause of action for physical adultery.  South Carolina eliminated these causes of action in 1988 and 1992 respectively for being contrary to this State’s public policy, finding them to be vindictive, as ways to promote opportunities for blackmail, and to “foster bitterness, promote vexatious lawsuits, put marriages on the marketplace, and use marriages as a means of character assassination.”  The matter before the Court in Windenhouse clearly fit into the UEFJA’s “public policy” exception, however, refusal to enforce the North Carolina judgment would violate the Full Faith and Credit Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which states that, “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”  The Court ultimately ruled to enforce the North Carolina judgment in this State.  “When a civil action has been reduced to a money judgment, the judgment is entitled to full faith and credit even if the cause of action upon which it is based is contrary to the forum state’s public policy . . . No public policy exception to the full faith and credit clause exists where a civil dispute has been reduced to a money judgment.” 

    The Court’s decision in Windehouse was obviously narrowly written to avoid opening the door to further applications.  With cultural and accompanying legal changes occurring around the United States such as the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage, the South Carolina Supreme Court was not trying to delve into matters beyond those presented in Windenhouse.  The South Carolina UEFJA public policy exception is still in full force; just not for monetary judgments in civil actions.

Authored: Mel Dinwoodie, Stratos Law LLC

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