Generally, Florida is seen as a model state, allowing claims to go forward. In 2013, the Florida legislature authorized an online claims system to allow for faster claims in certain instances. However, in State of Florida Department of Financial Services v. Lisa O'Connor, the Florida District Court of Appeals is quite critical of the Florida Unclaimed Property Bureau and their decision to deny a judgment creditor's claim of the debtor's unclaimed property.
This case is round two for Lisa O'Connor as she attempts to claim amounts to fulfill unpaid child support obligations of her ex-husband. The first case, O'Connor I, was rejected by the court since she had not exhausted her administrative remedies. She then filed a claim which was then denied by the Bureau since the claimant was determined not to be the owner. O'Connor then filed a writ of garnishment which the Department moved to dismiss and dissolve on sovereign immunity grounds. The trial court denied the motion, and this appeal followed.
While the Department contends that the legislature has not waived sovereign immunity for the purposes of allowing judgment creditors to claim funds held as unclaimed property, the claimant says that the stated purpose is to return unclaimed property to its owner and that her equitable and legal claim of ownership entitles her to the unclaimed property of her former spouse. The claimant goes further stating that sovereign immunity is not implicated because the State is only a custodian, not the owner, of the property.
Florida law specifically defines an "owner", in Section 717.101(18) as, among other things, "a person having a legal or equitable interest in property subject to this chapter." The trial court's order permitting the garnishment, in favor of the ex-wife, gives her a "legal or equitable interest in the property." The trial court determined that the ex-husband had a legal obligation to pay the ex-wife and he failed to pay that legal obligation. Further, he failed to make a claim on property held by the State and thus forfeited his ownership interest in the property. The court's order also relieves the Department's obligation to hold the funds in favor of the ex-husband, and thus ended the Department's conservatorship over the funds.
Both the trial court and the appeals court rejected the claim of sovereign immunity by the State. Instead, they relied on the custodial nature of unclaimed property and likened the funds to bank accounts. The Courts also noted that the writ of garnishment is a "one-time transaction for Zane's accounts themselves, rather than an ongoing garnishment of wages or salary."
In addition, the Court relies heavily on the public policy of favoring enforcement of child support payments. To this end, the Court has some strong language that even holders can agree with (emphasis added):
In summary, the Court says "[s]overeign immunity is not implicated when an original owner makes and prevails on a claim for unclaimed property; likewise, it is not implicated when a superior claim of ownership to unclaimed property is established by court orders."