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Understanding the Petition in a Debt Lawsuit

Understanding the Petition in a Debt Lawsuit

For a copy of this article in PDF form, click here: Understanding the Petition

If you are being sued by a debt collector, the first step in defending yourself is knowing who is suing you and what you are being sued for. You’ll want to know what facts the plaintiff thinks it can and needs to prove, and you’ll want to look for initial weaknesses in the case. In all of these things, you will need to understand how to read the petition and understand what it is doing.

Below, you will find a sample petition. The petition (also called “complaint” in some jurisdictions – the terms refer to the same thing) is in black, and my comments about what the petition is doing is in red ink. You will see that every part of the petition has its purpose and function.

For purposes of this article, I will refer only to a few parts of the case, as these areas are often discussed in the teleconference calls and people have shown that they do not understand them. But if you look at the annotated sample petition, you will see much more. Knowing what things are called is an important part of the process of understanding what they are and do and an important first step in defending your rights.

Caption

The caption of the case is the part where it says “Debt Collector vs You” and also the name of the court and jurisdiction. Although it has come up, very rarely, that the named plaintiff may not, actually, be the plaintiff (see our article and video on assignment in the glossary), normally the person named as plaintiff is the plaintiff.

In plain English, that means that if First National Bank is named as plaintiff, that’s the person suing you and not a debt buyer. If you have any reason to doubt that, you will want to use the discovery process to pry the truth loose.

And you are the defendant along with anyone else named as defendant in the caption.

The jurisdiction is also important, as this will either tell you that the court has dollar limits to its jurisdiction or not. At a minimum, you can use this part of the caption to find out whether the court does, indeed, have such limits. In general, if it does, the lower the limits, the less likely the court is to follow the rules of evidence rigorously. We usually want the highest court possible because it is critical to debt defense that the rules should be followed.

Title Heading of Suit

The title headings in a lawsuit are not formally treated as part of the lawsuit but are, instead, guidance. But what you need to know is that if you have different “counts” of the lawsuit there will be either more than one set of facts involved or, much more likely, more than one legal theory involved. If Count One is breach of contract, and Count Two is for Account Stated, you know you are being sued under two laws. In order to win your case, you will have to win on every count.

If you have no heading, or no heading that refers to counts, you are being sued based on one law (almost certainly), although it isn’t always perfectly clear from the petition what that is.

Wherefore Clause

This is the part of the suit that says, “wherefore, plaintiff requests…” In other words, it’s the part of the lawsuit that says what the plaintiff wants. If you want to know how much they’re suing you for, this is the place to look.

The wherefore clause is usually the last paragraph of a count. If your suit has more than one count, it will have more than one wherefore clause, one at the end of each count. If it does not have more than one count, it will probably be the last paragraph of the petition.

You need to know what the debt collector is suing you for. This is where you find that.

Sample Petition for Money Owed

 

IN THE ASSOCIATE CIRCUIT COURT        “Associate” means limited jurisdiction
OF THE COUNTY OF XXXXX                        County or city jurisdiction
STATE OF XXXX

DEBT COLLECTOR COMPANY, LLC,                     This is the “Caption,” This name is the
ASSIGNEE OF CC COMPANY (Mastercard),          plaintiff [the lawyer signing is not
Plaintiff,                                                                          plaintiff, nor is Mastercard]

vs.

JOHN Q. PUBLIC,
Defendant.

COUNT ONE – SUIT ON MONEY OWED   [Title. “Count One” indicates this claim has more than one legal basis. Lots of suits are brought on only one basis and don’t have “Count __” in them]

Comes Now Plaintiff and for its cause of action against the Defendant states as follows: [Intro, sometimes much longer]

  1. Plaintiff is a limited liability company duly organized and existing under law and is the lawful assignee of this debt. [Paragraph allegations – you have to respond to each paragraph – this one identifies the plaintiff and alleges it was assigned the debt.]
  2. That defendant is a resident of xx county, state of x. [paragraph establishing court’s jurisdiction over defendant, so important – don’t admit if wrong]
  3. That defendant is in default under the terms of the documentation attached hereto, incorporated herein and marked Plaintiff’s Exhibits A and B in the amount of $1,332.14. [This is ‘breach of contract” language, often more involved than this, including claims of issuing cards or credit, etc.]
  4. That plaintiff has performed all conditions on its part required to be performed. [Establishing right to remedy – plaintiff did not breach contract]
  5. That demand for payment has been made and payment refused. [Formality, sometimes but not usually required, usually included though]

Wherefore, plaintiff prays judgment against defendant in the principal amount of $1,332.14 together with interest of 39% per annum from December 7, 2005, and for costs and attorneys fees herein. [the “Wherefore clause.” Says what the plaintiff wants. Usually if it does not say “attorney’s fees,” they won’t be able to get them if they win]

COUNT TWO – ACCOUNT STATED      [second claim, this one under law of account stated]

  1. Plaintiff realleges and incorporates paragraphs 1-5 of this petition as if fully stated herein. [“reincorporation clause” – standard. You will simply reallege your previous responses in the same way]
  2. Plaintiff had a regular billing arrangement with Defendant whereby each month Plaintiff would send Defendant an accounting of money due and owing either as a result of new charges made by Defendant or for charges based upon an existing balance. [necessary to show that bills, or “accounting,” were a regular thing, expected by defendant]
  3. Plaintiff sent Defendant a bill showing a charge of $1,332.14 due immediately on X date.[the “new contract,” because it was actually or “impliedly accepted”]
  4. Defendant did not dispute this bill showing a balance of $1,332.14 and accordingly accepted it. [Your supposed agreement]
  5. Defendant did not pay the amount due and is thereby in violation of the law. [The “breach” of the contract created by accepting the accounting – note that new agreement does not have any terms other than the money allegedly owed]

Wherefore, plaintiff prays judgment against defendant in the amount of $1,332.14 together with costs of this action and such other relief as this court deems appropriate under the law. [The “wherefore clause” for the account stated – note that it should not include attorney’s fees or (probably) interest]

Collection Law Firm [law firm’s signature, usually illegible. Both the named lawyer and the firm are representing plaintiff (but are NOT plaintiff) and would be on the hook for possible violations of FDCPA]

______________________

Collection lawyer,
Law Firm

Address

[There is usually some sort of affidavit to the effect that the defendant is not in active military service – if you are not, this is purely a formality. If you are in active military service, special rules apply to your case]

They’re Suing Me for A Lot – Won’t they Fight Harder?

For a copy of this article in pdf form, click here: why amount does not matter

Why the Amount the Debt Collector is Suing You For (Almost) Doesn’t Matter

From a normal consumer’s point of view, the threat posed by a suit for $500 or $1,000 is very, very different from one for $25,000 or $50,000. But the difference in amounts to the debt collector is much less significant than you might think. There are several reasons for this, from the way they view risk to something called “opportunity cost.” We’ll discuss both of those things here.

Our observation is that debt collectors do NOT treat cases for large amounts any differently than they treat cases for small amounts. They follow a set of standard procedures.

Sued by a Debt Collector

If you’re being sued by a debt collector on a debt for $500, the lawsuit itself probably scares you in that it’s pulling you into a hostile and alien world – the world of litigation – where you expect people to frown at you a lot and make you pay. And for most people being sued by debt collectors, $500 is not a negligible amount – actually having to pay it could be a significant hardship. On the other hand, a suit for five or ten thousand dollars is a different, and much scarier, thing. You’d get over a $500 judgment, but you might never be able to pay off $10,000.

There’s a tendency to project. Because ten thousand is such a hurtle for you, you think it’s a large amount of money for a debt collector. You might think they’d do a lot more for this larger amount.

For the most part, however, you’d be wrong in thinking that. This is because of the way they assess the various risks associated with collecting debt.

Risk

Debt collectors look at three primary factors in evaluating their cases. These are risk of losing, price of winning, and chance of collecting. To put it all in terms of “risk,” you might put the factors this way: the risk of losing, what you risk in order to win, and the risk of not collecting what you win.

Risk of Losing

Debt collectors regard the risk of losing a debt suit as negligible. Their business model, which involves bringing suit without ever even looking at the evidence that might support their suit, shows how confident they are. They know most lawsuits they file won’t ever be disputed at all, and the price of losing is trivial to them. They’re dealing in the hundreds of millions of dollars of nominal debt – your suit for $25,000 doesn’t even register as a risk worthy of concern.

Of course the lawyers who will eventually be involved in your suit take a somewhat different view. They don’t want to lose because of their pride and reputation, but at the end of the day the amount at stake is trivial to them, too.

Price of Winning

Debt collectors take the price of winning far more seriously. For one thing, the cost of buying the debt and filing suit are “sunk” costs. That is, they paid that up front as a minimal cost of doing business for any law suit. Every time you do anything that requires them to take action, it’s costing them new money, and it’s not the basic cost of doing business in the courts, it’s money you’re making them pay.

They can see that, and they know the money they spend on your case may be going away for good. Thus our materials aim to emphasize and increase this risk, and we are usually quite successful in doing so. Taking action that increases the cost of winning will have a significant impact on the way the debt collector values your case – it lowers the value of the case in the debt collector’s mind dramatically.

Of course if they’re suing you for $50,000, your actions wouldn’t seem likely to reduce the value of the case very much, right?

Wrong, and that brings us to the final risk factor, chance of collection – or you might call it the risk of not collecting (we often refer to it as “collection risk.”

Collection Risk

Have you heard the expression that if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, they own you, but if you owe them a million dollars you own them? This is related to the collection risk factor. Banks know, and collectors know, that collecting $1,000 is usually possible against an unwilling defendant. But collecting ten thousand? Not going to happen. You probably won’t have it, and if you do, you’ll hide it.

That sets up a dynamic: the more you owe, the greater the collection risk discount. If they’re suing you for $25,000, nobody expects to collect anything like that. They might get a little more from you with a $25,000 judgment than a $1,000 judgment, but not enough to matter.

And there is a good possibility in both high and low dollar cases that they won’t be able to collect a cent.

Thus debt collectors do not consider high dollar cases particularly valuable. They don’t like spending money on them any more than on low dollar cases.

Now look at the larger picture of the world in which debt collectors live.

Opportunity Cost

Opportunity cost is the cost of doing one thing rather than another.

Remember that the amount of debt in the U.S. is essentially unlimited. That means the opportunity for suing (other) people is equally unlimited.

Now remember that debt collectors get judgments approximately 80% of the time by default. That means they can file suit in 100 cases and get 80 judgments in about an hour. If those judgments, conservatively speaking, are for $5,000 apiece, that’s $400,000 in an hour. And these numbers are not only theoretically possible, but I have seen them happen many times.

Now consider your case for $50,000. Even if they thought they could get that – which they almost definitely do not – if they have to spend five hours working for it, they’ll lose perhaps two million dollars in default judgments in that time. Does that sound like a wise business decision?

Of Course They Aren’t Machines

You might think the debt collectors are cold-blooded opportunists, and you might think they would only do what makes them the most money. And usually you’d be right, but they are human, and sometimes other factors work their ways into cases. They won’t always do what you might expect.

But the odds are strongly in your favor, and that means that it makes sense to defend yourself as much in big-dollar cases as little dollar cases.

Your Legal Leg Up

Your Legal Leg Up is a website and business dedicated to helping people defend themselves from debt lawsuits without having to hire a lawyer. As you can see below, we have a number of products as well as memberships that should help you wherever you are in the process. In addition to that, our website is a resource for all. Many of the articles and materials are reserved for members, but many are available to everyone.

Finding Resources

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Click on the magnifying glass icon, and a small window opens. Put in a key word – a word you think relates to what you’re looking for – and enter. You will get a page of results.

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We have quite a few products that will help you with specific issues (you can find them by clicking on the “products” button in the top menu of every page on the site), but most people should consider starting with a membership.

Members get discounts on all products as well as unlimited opportunities to join our regularly scheduled teleconferences. This gives invaluable real-time assistance, answers to questions, help with strategies, and encouragement. You also get the Litigation Manual for free with membership. Find out about memberships by clicking the “About Memberships” link in the menu at the top of any page on the site.

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