WASHINGTON - A Connecticut man who was sued after being in a fist fight won an important constitutional right from the Supreme Court yesterday, allowing him to protect his home and his credit from becoming legal casualties of the incident.
The court unanimously curbed the power of state courts to apply legal restrictions to a private home owned by an individual who has been sued for damages.
home may not be tied up by court order to assure future payment of potential court-awarded damages unless the judge first holds a hearing to test whether the homeowner is likely to lose the lawsuit ultimately, the justices declared in an opinion written by Justice Byron R. White.
Such a hearing, the court said, is the only way to make sure that the home is not put under legal restriction by error. If such a hearing shows that the person who sued the homeowner does not have a good chance of winning, then the home will be shielded legally while the case proceeds.
Because the ruling was based on the Constitution, it applies everywhere in the country, assuring homeowners of legal protection of a kind that is not now assured in every state.
In Maryland, for example, state courts may issue such "attachment" orders only in unusual circumstances, but, when they do, they need not give the property owner a hearing in advance.
Now, they must, because of yesterday's ruling in the case of Connecticut vs. Doehr (No. 90-143).
The ruling grew out of a tussle in March 1988 between Brian K. Doehr of Meriden and John F. DiGiovanni of South Meriden.
Mr. DiGiovanni, claiming that his left wrist was broken and his eye blackened in the fist fight, sued Mr. Doehr for assault and battery and simultaneously asked for a court order to "attach" Mr. Doehr's home for $75,000, to cover damages that might result from his lawsuit.
Mr. Doehr only learned after the fact that his house had been placed under the legal restriction; he had no chance to challenge before it was imposed. Such an attachment clouded the title to his home, barred him from selling it or borrowing on it, affected his credit standing and may have put his mortgage in jeopardy.
Mr. Doehr promptly filed his own lawsuit in federal court, claiming that it was unconstitutional to "attach" his home without holding a hearing so he could challenge such an order.
That was the ruling he got from the justices yesterday.
While the court unanimously declared that a hearing must be held in advance of any such court order, four of the nine justices said they wished the court had gone further to order those seeking such an order to post a money bond. Because only four justices took that position, however, it was not a part of the final ruling.
(In Maryland, state law requires a bond from anyone seeking an attachment order.)