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What Makes Something “Evidence” in Debt Cases?

What Makes Something Evidence

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This article is a brief but important discussion about “evidence,” what it is, how it works, and what to do about it. I get a lot of questions about “striking” documents at various times in a lawsuit, so this may help with that, too. While this article is intended to be a stand-alone article, it is also a part of our Glossary of Legal Terms, where we explain legal concepts and language to non-lawyers. Please feel free to use that resource if you run into a legal term you don’t understand.

But in this article we discuss something that most people understand a little bit about.

What is Evidence?

In a way, evidence is just “stuff.” It’s stuff that is supposed to relate to a case, so let’s start by introducing the concept of “relevance,” which is the formal way in which material relates to a case.

Relevance

Something is “relevant” if it makes some fact that matters to your case (is “material” to your case, in legalese) somewhat more or less likely to be considered true. A bank statement, for example, might be relevant to show how much you owe, or that it is your account.

It doesn’t have to “prove” it. Just make it more or less likely, and of course some evidence is much, much more convincing than other things might be. In debt law, the “credibility” of evidence actually rarely matters because what the debt collectors typically use are credit card statements and other things like that. For some reason the courts almost always believe them, despite all the stories of how often they’re wrong.

In any event, this video will presume that the “evidence” of which we are speaking is relevant. But you should never just do that. Always consider the question of relevance as one of the important first questions. Does it impact on something the debt collector must prove to establish its case? Anything else is not relevant and should be objected to on that basis.

How is Evidence Used

So what turns this relevant stuff into “evidence?”

The “stuff” becomes “evidence” when you ask the court to consider it for some specific purpose. That is deceptively simple, and you might think it doesn’t mean anything. But it means a lot, actually. It means that when a debt collector attaches statements or affidavits to its petition, it is NOT evidence, unless the petition is a “verified petition” where somebody is swearing that the allegations, and the evidence attached are true. Those are quite rare, but if you have one, you will have to verify your answer as well. So in that situation the stuff is a lot like evidence.

However, we need not consider that further because in almost all debt cases, there isn’t a verified petition, and the documents attached are NOT evidence in any present sense.

This in turn suggests that a motion to strike the attachments is pointless, and you should also be aware that the plaintiff is not trying to prove its case – so a motion to dismiss for lack of evidence is also pointless at that stage.

Stuff generally becomes “evidence” at two times in a case.

  • On an “evidentiary motion.”
  • And at trial.

An evidentiary motion is a motion that calls for some sort of proof. Most typically, that would be a motion for summary judgment, but a motion to dismiss for failure to serve would also involve proof of that failure. Likewise, motions to compel require that you show the court certain facts, and motions for sanctions can involve much more involved fact finding.

And a motion to vacate is also going to require some very specific evidence.

But in most of these situations you’re simply presenting evidence to show a rational person could believe something – you’re not asking the court actually to believe it. In motions for summary judgment you’re asking the court to find, decisively, that certain facts are established beyond dispute, and at trial you’re asking the fact finder to believe you and not the other person.

Evidence is always Evidence of Something

In any event, we now have stuff that has become evidence. It’s always evidence of SOMETHING. Right?
It’s supposed to show some specific, important thing is true or not true. And of course evidence could show more than one thing is true or not true, which is important.

Evidence is always evidence of some fact or facts, in other words. You don’t move to “strike” it. You OBJECT to it when the other side tries to get the court to consider it. You object to its being used to prove some specific fact (but maybe not some other fact).

Admissibility

Before the court can consider the evidence, it first must decide whether it is “admissible”  (It has to decide whether it can consider it.)

We talk a lot about admissibility in other materials, because most debt cases are decided based on
whether evidence – usually affidavits and bank statements – is admissible. Your objection to evidence is to its admissibility. In other words, you are asking the court not to consider the evidence at all. At a jury trial, it’s important to do this before the evidence is seen by the jury, so you object to the question asked (rather than the answer given) if possible, or you object when the other side asks to show it to the jury.

Remember that it is possible to have evidence admitted for one thing but not another thing. Suppose you’re claiming, for example, that you sent a request for verification, but they never verified before suing you. Your copy of the letter would be proof of what the request said. Your testimony that you sent the letter would be proof that you sent it, but you would ALSO need some proof that they received it. Hence it makes sense to send them by certified mail.

The letter itself is admissible about the contents of the request but not the receipt.

Normal people are not used to breaking things down in this way, and this turning of everything into an elaborate flow-chart takes some getting used to. But you need to think that way both to get your own evidence admitted, and also – more importantly in debt cases – to attack the debt collector’s evidence.

Remember that if the debt collector manages to get credit card statements admitted into evidence that will almost always be fatal to your defense.

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Because this is a general article, there are not any products specifically related to this post. I do suggest asserting your rights early and often, and you might find our Take Control of your Life product helpful in that. I also suggest great care in researching and analyzing facts and law. You might find our Guide to Legal Research and Analysis product helpful for that.

Beyond that, if you are facing significant debt problems, I’d suggest our memberships.

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If They Never Have Evidence Why Do Discovery

People ask me why they should do discovery in debt cases when everybody knows the debt collectors don’t have any evidence. The answer to that question might seem obvious once you’ve been around, but it’s a critical part of defending yourself from the debt collectors.

As we point out in The Most Dangerous Myth, you can’t depend on anybody to do anything for you. You can’t depend on the courts to get rid of debt cases that don’t have evidence. If they did that, they’d get rid of most of them, but that isn’t their job. It’s going to be up to you.

There are a couple of fundamental reasons to do discovery as soon as possible. You have to make them show you what they have or admit what they don’t have. And the process of discovery costs the debt collectors money and often drives them away by itself. In addition, conducting discovery will likely make the judge and the other side take you more seriously and be more cooperative when you need it.

Make them Admit what they Have or Don’t Have

The first, legally-based reason, for pushing discovery despite all their objections and BS is that to win the case you must PROVE they have nothing. Or rather, you must prove that what they have, if anything, is not enough for them to win.

Ideally you could do that by motion for summary judgment, which would spare you the risk and effort of trial.

If you can’t do that, then you must prepare to win at trial.

On the other hand if they do have things, you need to know about it so you can prepare for them.

Now, to be clear, debt collectors, who are always represented by lawyers (they have to be), start with the advantage of the court’s attention and respect. You, on the other hand, as a non-lawyer, will have to earn the court’s respect. Maybe it’s not fair, but that’s just the way it is.

And one result of this is that you simply cannot count on the court to pay close enough attention to any arguments you make unless you give it time. A motion for summary judgment – win or lose – is the best way to present your arguments about the debt collector’s evidence to the court.

In order to do that, you must know, in detail, what that evidence is and where it comes from.

Discovery is Expensive for Debt Collectors

The debt collector is almost certainly going to object to every single request or interrogatory you give it. They can’t help themselves, and it’s usually a good tactic because it drives so many defendants into submission. But it’s a two-edged sword, and when you’re pro se and determined, their objections will be a large advantage for you.

Part of filing a motion to compel answers is an “informal conference” and attempt to negotiate discovery disputes. You will have to call the other side’s lawyer up, ask him or her why she objects to each item of discovery, tell her why you want it, and argue each objection. And their objections will be numerous, absurd, and repetitive. They’ll object, for example, to your request for information about the alleged purchase of your debt on the basis of attorney-client privilege. In all likelihood no lawyer will have been involved – or it will be strictly in an arms-length transaction where no attorney-client privilege ever applies. And they’ll make many other absurd arguments.

Take your time. Take their time. And know that it’s costing them about $200 per hour for you to do so.

Find out whether they actually have anything they aren’t giving you. If they say they don’t, then once you confirm the message you’ll have what you need for the summary judgment motion. If they say they do, keep fighting until you know exactly what it is. Again, all this is costing them a LOT of money.

And nothing makes a debt collector rethink the wisdom of suing you more than having to spend money. Not even it looking like you can win the case outright.

Conclusion

So go through the process. Chances are good that they’ll either give up or you will have what you need to win by the time you get through. And there’s no other way to get to that point.

 

Objections 101

Objections – what they are and how they work

The way you protect yourself in trial from evidence that could hurt you is to object. This video discusses how that all works.

When lawsuits are tried, they are normally decided by the evidence much more than any argument. That means that you want to control what gets seen and considered by the judge or jury. At the same time, the “flow” of the action can make a difference, and so there are times a party might not want to slow things down or stop them even if what is getting said isn’t necessarily within the rules. Therefore, the courts let you waive your objections.

To put that a little differently, if you do not make an objection, a judge will normally treat your silence as a decision not to object, as a “waiver” of the right to object. An objection is the way you let the court know you want it to follow the rules of evidence.

In debt law, there is almost never any reason to waive an objection. Your case will probably be determined on the basis of a few documents, and whether those documents come into evidence will almost always depend on whether you object to them. Therefore, learn the two most important rules of evidence for debt law: the rule against hearsay evidence, and the business records exception to the rule against hearsay. Learn how to object, and be ready to shoot down their attempt to use the business records exception.

Discovery – Requests for Admissions

Like my article on requests for documents, this is going to be a brief article. For a fuller discussion and samples, look in the Debt Defense System. Still, you should be able to create your own after reading this.

As with other discovery, Requests for Admissions are controlled by the rules of civil procedure for your jurisdiction. And there are two sets of rules you must consider: your state rules in general and, if you are in some sub-court of the state, the rules regarding your court; and your “Local Rules” if your court has them.

Sub-Courts

An example of what I mean by “sub-court” might be what we have in Missouri, Associate Circuit courts – courts that are designed to handle smaller amounts of money, or small claims courts (even less money). Many states have similar types of arrangements, and these sub-courts will have their own special rules, and these rules always control when and how much discovery you can conduct.

Even if you’re not in that sort of sub-court, your court may have “local rules,” which are rules designed to elaborate on your state’s rules of civil procedure. The rules of civil procedure will create the general structure of discovery and set the penalties for not cooperating – the local rules will establish certain limits: only a certain number, for example, or that they must be in a certain format (not “compound,” usually, meaning without sub-parts).

Whatever the situation, you must find the rules controlling your discovery, or you may do something wrong, giving the debt collector an easy out. To find your rules of civil procedure, follow this link. Any special rules may be mentioned in your rules of civil procedure or in your court’s web-page. I am not aware of these rules – but you must be.

What Admissions Are

I have done my best to warn you throughout this series, in my Debt Trouble series, and elsewhere, about the risks of admissions. Whereas requests for admissions are covered in the rules of discovery, they really are not discovery: they are a sort of agreement that certain issues do not need to be argued about. You aren’t seeking information or evidence, you are asking the other side not to dispute the issue – to make evidence unnecessary. That means that while you can argue about what documents or interrogatory answers mean and whether they “establish” any fact, once an admission is made, the issue is resolved and decided. When it comes to answering their requests for admissions, that means you should be very, very cautious. One reason I encourage people to send out discovery first is that I want you to see how they handle yours before you try to answer theirs.

Content

If you have unlimited requests for admissions, you should make sure, at least, to ask them to admit to no knowledge or information regarding each part of their petition. For example, if their first allegation is that you owe them money, you ask them to admit that you do not. And then you ask them to admit they have no evidence that you do. (That’s two separate requests, because requests for admissions must never be “compound” – they can’t have more than one part.)

Special Warning Regarding Requests for Admissions

It should be obvious from the above that requests for admissions are basically just traps for suckers. They will deny or object to every single request you make on any basis, however flimsy. If your rules limit your total discovery to a certain number of requests and include requests for admissions in that number (so that for every request for admission, you lose an interrogatory), I suggest you skip the requests for admissions altogether. On the other hand, many jurisdictions do not limit them this way. The reason you use requests for admissions is that you want to have the materials you need for a motion for summary judgment even if they don’t respond to your discovery at all.

When is Evidence Evidence

When Can Documents or Testimony be Used against You?

What makes some things “admissible” to be used in court in a trial but other things not? What makes something evidence that can be used for or against you? This video is a very short primer on evidence. Your case will almost certainly be decided on the basis of whether you can keep some things out of evidence – or whether they can get them in.

 

You Must Object

You Must Object

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More Research on Google Scholar

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Videos Strike First and Our Case Their Case

Two basic concepts relating to discovery: our need as pro se defendants to serve our discovery first and quickly (not necessarily the same things, as debt plaintiffs often don’t serve discovery at all). And to understand that our case requires that we prove certain things, while we need to know other things in order to defend against their case. Again, the idea may be obvious, but you must separate our case and their case analytically in order to understand exactly what you need for the case.

Strike First and Fast

Two Principles of Conducting Discovery When You’re Sued for Debt

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Your Case – Their Case

What’s Important to Each Side When You’re Sued for Debt

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Create an Affidavit to use as Evidence

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