Do I Respond, How do I Respond, What do I Respond

DO I Respond, HOW do I Respond, and WHAT do I Respond?

We talk elsewhere about what constitutes valid service of a lawsuit, and you should check out that video and article if you have any questions about whether you’ve been served.

We also discuss elsewhere whether you should respond to a debt collection lawsuit you find out about if you have not been served the complaint. To boil that down to its most essential point, if you have not been served at all – you hear about the suit from a neighbor or look your name up in court files, or a lawyer sends you a letter saying you’re being sued – we suggest that you take no action if you don’t have a lawyer. If you do have a lawyer, and the lawyer thinks it’s best to get on with it, that might be a good idea, but as a pro se defendant you won’t be able to shut the case down the way a lawyer might.

Let them serve you if they can, but you have no obligation to help with that process. You don’t have to go down to the sheriff’s office or call the firm suing you or its process server. See if they can get you, and if they can’t the case will be dismissed against you. It actually happens a lot, although not a statistically huge percentage of cases.

If you go this route, you will want to keep an eye on the court files to see if, whether or not they HAVE served you, they claim to have served you, and that brings up a special issue that we discuss elsewhere, too.

If you get served, your next question will be HOW to respond. If you fail to respond at all, the other side will get a default judgment and start trying to get your stuff, so this is probably not a good idea for you. You’ll need to Answer or file a motion. To answer this question, you should first consider what kind of court you’re in. Are you in a small claims court, sometimes called a “magistrate” court? Or are you in a “real” court.

If you’re in a small claims or magistrate court, see our video and article on that.

Assuming you’re in a real court, you’ll need to do two things right off the bat. First, find your state’s Rules of Civil Procedure and look up the part about service of process and motions to dismiss. Some motions to dismiss have to be filed before you answer the petition. Find out if you have one of those – the petition is vague, names the wrong person, or violates certain procedural requirements some states have for debt collectors. If you have one of the motions that has to be filed before answering, you might be waiving your right to bring the motion if you answer first.

One of those motions is to whether you were legally served. If they claim you were served, but you have some reason to dispute that, you probably need to bring what’s called a “motion to quash” service before you answer, since answering will be regarded as your consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

If none of those concerns apply to you, you will need to answer the suit. In some states, they have what’s called a “verified petition,” which means that someone swore to the truth of the allegations. If you have that sort of petition, you will need to swear to your answer, and this means getting a notary public to witness the document. But this is rare. In most instances, the petition is an ordinary one signed by the lawyer for the debt collector. If that’s what you’ve got, you will simply want to deny almost all of the paragraphs, one by one, in the petition. Don’t go to absurd lengths and deny your name or address, if those are correct, but you should generally deny all of the other substantive allegations. The legal effect of your denial is to say, “prove it.”

In some states you can file what’s called a “general denial,” which does in one sentence what I just suggested.

If you think you have a counterclaim against the person suing you, you will want to add that to your answer.

We discuss “affirmative defenses” elsewhere, but in general they are facts that, even if what the debt collector says in its petition is true, would mean you don’t owe them money. Most typical of these sorts of defenses are some sort of agreement to settle or address the claim, or the passage of too much time before they brought the suit, called the statute of limitations.

The essence of an affirmative defense is that you bear the burden of proof in showing that these factors exist.

Finally, let’s talk about demanding a jury. Our position is, generally, that debt defendants should ask for a jury. We discuss this in greater length in our article and video on juries, but if you think you want a jury (as we recommend), you need to find out how your court and state require that you demand one. In federal court and some states, it’s enough to say it as part of your answer. In some states, you have to make a separate request by separate pleading. Find out what you are required to do and do that.

If by chance you’re just finding out about this after already starting to defend your case, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily too late. If you have a right to jury trial, the right is absolute when you raise it in the proper way and time, but even if you don’t do it when you should, the court should normally grant your request anyway absent some sort of misbehavior or the passage of too much time, and they are required to be “liberal” in their interpretation of what’s too late. That is, they are supposed to lean towards granting your request for a jury, so even if you’re late, you should go for it if you want one.