Motions to Dismiss in Debt Collection Cases, Part Two
When you’re being sued on a debt by a debt collector, motions to dismiss can come up in one or both of two ways: you could file one against them – or they could file one against you. More specifically, (1) you could file a motion to dismiss their lawsuit, or (2) they could file a motion to dismiss your counterclaim.
It is also possible that either or both of you could file a motion to dismiss certain affirmative defenses, although this does not happen very often in debt cases.
What Motions to Dismiss Are
So what is a motion to dismiss? A motion is always the way a litigation party asks the court to take some official action. A motion to dismiss is a motion asking the court to get rid of some part of the other party’s case on the grounds that, even if what the other side says is true, it doesn’t give them the right they claim. For this reason, motions to dismiss are sometimes called motions “for judgment on the pleadings” or “demurrers.” The crucial fact in all of these motions is that all the facts alleged in the pleadings are taken, for purposes of the motion, as granted just as if they had been proven. If the motion is denied, the facts will still have to be proven later in trial.
In the Litigation Manual I illustrate the concept by supposing that a policeman has issued a ticket for exceeding the posted speed limit, but the ticket says you were going 25 mph in a 30 mph zone. There, even if what the ticket says is true (and in this case, specially if it is), it simply does not state a violation of the law. A similarly basic example in the debt law would be where you sued the other side under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act without alleging an action that violated the act.
Many motions to dismiss really seem to be calling the court’s attention to some obvious mistake, a simple oversight, perhaps. Naturally, however, many motions to dismiss are not so simple. In many cases, although the facts are clear, what the law provides or requires is not, and these would be cases appropriate for motions to dismiss.
Because the motion assumes that every fact alleged is considered true, motions to dismiss are said to be “testing the sufficiency of the pleadings.” Most courts will go ever further than that, and state that, if any set of facts (alleged or not) consistent with the pleadings could result in a valid claim, the motion to dismiss is to be denied, but from the point of view of a pro se defendant, this rule has limitations. Depending on unalleged facts can be a dangerous occupation for someone wanting to avoid a motion to dismiss.
Defendant’s Motions to Dismiss vs. Plaintiff’s Motions to Dismiss
Technically, a defendant’s motion to dismiss is treated in the same way as a plaintiff’s motion to dismiss, the only differences being who brings them and when. In any event, what is up for grabs is purely a legal question: does the law allow or prohibit certain action, and does it give a right to the person claiming it?
Despite the legal equivalence of the motions brought by plaintiff and defendant, it makes sense for us to look first at defendant’s motions, which you are likely to file against debt collectors, and secondly at plaintiffs’ motions to dismiss counterclaims or affirmative defenses, which debt collectors are likely to file against you.
Motions to Dismiss by Debt Defendants
When Petitions (or counterclaims) are filed, they are supposed to be following one of two types of pleading: “notice” pleading or “fact” pleading. The type of pleading required can make a very large difference, and it is determined by State law. In other words, your state requires either fact pleading or notice pleading. One of your first actions as a defendant in a debt lawsuit should be to find out which rule your state follows. Most states require fact pleading.
If your state requires fact pleading, then filing a motion to dismiss is as “simple” as looking at the elements (parts) of the case the plaintiff is alleging (its “prima facie” case), seeing if every fact necessary to prove that case is alleged, and moving to dismiss if any parts of the prima facie case is missing. You might think that debt collectors, who file millions of these cases per year, would never omit a part of their case in the pleadings. In fact they do so quite often, and this is simply because of the nature of their business: they buy huge numbers of supposed debts with minimal paperwork, file cases by the truckload, and rarely get challenged by defendants or the courts. In reality, lawyers are creating forms that secretaries fill out much of the time. They are not sharp, in other words, nor do they need to worry very much about their petitions. It is easy for them to make mistakes in the pleadings, and they often do. And sometimes they do it on purpose.
For a simple example, consider the filing of a claim of breach of contract in Pennsylvania, where a plaintiff on such a claim must either state the terms of the contract or attach a copy of it. Debt collectors almost never do this despite the rule – because they can’t. They don’t have the contracts. The huge majority of the cases are won by default, but those who defend simply file a motion to dismiss (called “Preliminary Objections” in Pennsylvania). Eventually the cases of persistent defendants get dismissed with prejudice, but for each case that gets dismissed, probably thousands of inadequately pleaded cases result in default judgment for the debt collectors. And the debt collectors are never punished for flouting the law. See the attached sample motion and judgment.
Where the jurisdiction is “notice” pleading, a motion to dismiss is much more difficult to win. Notice pleading means that a petition must give the party being sued some “general idea” of what he is being sued for, and in some courts this is such a vague standard that it is almost impossible to succeed in your motion to dismiss. Unless the debt collector actually names its theory in a heading (as they often do), if it does not state all the elements of an obvious claim, your motion may well be a “Motion for More Definite Statement.” In this motion you point out that the plaintiff has not alleged any specific claim and you ask that the case be dismissed or that the debt collector be required to state the elements of a claim. Your argument there is that the vague petition fails to give you adequate notice of the claims being brought against you. This type of motion (for more definite statement) has many of the advantages of a motion to dismiss and should probably be brought if possible.
If you win that and the plaintiff then files an Amended Petition that is also inadequate in stating a claim, you will either oppose the amendment or file a new motion to dismiss.
Timing – When to File
There are two aspects of time you must consider when filing a Motion to Dismiss (or for More Definite Statement). The first of these is whether you must file your motion to dismiss before filing an Answer. In my opinion it is always a good idea to file a motion to dismiss – on any basis – before filing an Answer.