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A Question of Burden – General versus Affirmative Defenses

“General” versus “Affirmative” Defenses

Many debt defendants love the idea of affirmative defenses – they just sound stronger, don’t they? But in the law, they are specific things, and they are not better than general defenses. They’re just different. If you have an affirmative defense, that’s fine, and you probably wouldn’t want to ignore it. But general defenses are really the “bread and butter” of defense.

So what are these two types of defense?

General Defense or Denial

A general defense is one of two things. It CAN mean a general denial of every allegation in the petition. You’re saying, “prove it” to everything. Since the debt collector has the burden of proof, I would suggest you consider this if it is available to you. It’s easy, fast, and comprehensive. But of course your next move is on to discovery and the rest of defense.

Generically, a “general defense” is one where you deny an allegation. So, above, you could file a “general defense” which denies all paragraphs (if your jurisdiction allows this). Or normally you would simply deny all or most of the paragraphs of the plaintiff’s petition. Every denial is a “general defense” that leaves the burden of proof on the plaintiff.

Affirmative Defenses

Affirmative defenses are something else. They amount to a statement that, “even if what the plaintiff is true, I don’t owe because …”

One example of this might be a settlement – suppose you entered an agreement to pay and did pay the other side, but they sue you anyway. If so, your general denial will be to deny the allegations of the petition, but then you’ll add an affirmative defense: On x day, the parties entered into settlement discussions and formed an agreement. Defendant fully performed this agreement on y day, paying z dollars for a “complete settlement of all claims.” See, attached (a copy of the agreement).

Thus, the facts that you have alleged amount to a complete defense to the action (known as “accord and satisfaction). And note that the facts are pleaded with “particularity” (in detail), and the defendant has the burden of proof of these things.

Other examples of affirmative defenses include collateral estoppel, res judicata, unclean hands, statute of limitations, and laches. There could be others. In each case the defendant would bear the burden of pleading the facts constituting the defense and proving them at trial. Since a general denial leaves the burden of proof on the plaintiff, they’re usually more important.

Do not get fancy when defending

As I have pointed out elsewhere, there are other products out there that will tempt you in various ways. One way is to find a shortcut. Another, equally dangerous thing, is to try to hide behind legalese. You may think you’ve found an excellent phrase, like “I know nothing about what you’re saying and therefore deny…”, but you could be burying yourself under an admission. (In this case, that you “know nothing about…” – the denial is a conclusion with no real impact, but admitting you know nothing? – that’s a fact you’ve just admitted.)

Don’t Try to Hide behind Legalese against Debt Collectors

I have recently had a customer tell me she bought a package that told her to answer requests for admissions with “after reasonable inquiry, defendant cannot either admit or deny… [each request].”

It sounds so much more reasonable, doesn’t it, to say “defendant has no knowledge to admit or deny…” or “after reasonable inquiry defendant cannot either admit or deny…” requests for admissions or allegations in petitions. The problem is, if you cannot admit or deny, and the debt collector alleges, there is nothing in opposition to the debt collector’s allegations. The debt collector just says, “defendant admits that, after reasonable investigation, she cannot deny…”

The standard for judgment on the pleadings is no genuine issue of material fact.

Just deny what you can. And you can deny anything you don’t have to admit in almost every jurisdiction. Don’t get fancy. Hiding behind fancy sounding legalese is, in the final analysis, just hiding. The judge knows it, and the lawyers know it. You know it too – or you wouldn’t try it.

You have very strong arguments to make in terms of law and justice. The debt collector has an extremely tough burden to carry. Your every effort should be to make that burden crystal clear – and to prove that the debt collector cannot do it. Legalese of any sort will simply distract from this sharp, clear mission. A clear, rigorous reading of the facts and law is your friend. Vagueness is your enemy. Products which encourage you to hide behind legalese invite you to disaster.

Answer and Counterclaim

It is very helpful to have a counterclaim if you’re being sued by a debt collector. In this article we’ll discuss a few mechanics – things that are obvious to lawyers but might not be so obvious to people representing themselves.

What is a Counterclaim?

First of all, what is a counterclaim? Very simply, a counterclaim is a lawsuit you file in the same court against someone who is already suing you. That is, it is any lawsuit you file, whether or not it is related to the suit the other person filed.

The theory is that if two people are already in court for any reason, they may as well get everything done at the same time, but there are certain exceptions in cases where hearing the cases together would be too confusing, or the like. Many counterclaims do not have to be brought – you can wait till the first case is over and then (if time hasn’t run out) bring your case separately as an original suit. On the other hand, sometimes possible claims are so closely related that you are not allowed to wait: these are called “mandatory” counterclaims, and if you fail to bring a mandatory counterclaim as part of the first lawsuit you will lose the right. A classic example of mandatory counterclaims would be claims by both people in a car crash against each other – waiting and filing separately would be a big waste of court time and might also lead to contradictory judgments.

For debt defense, though, you might think of it as a defensive countermeasure. As in judo, they’ve been attacking you, and now you’re going to use what they’ve done against them.

Claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) can be brought as counterclaims, but they are not mandatory. You could, if you wanted to, bring a claim under the FDCPA in federal court – or even another state court – while a lawsuit against you for the debt was still underway. As a practical matter, when I was still practicing, I never did that, but you could do it.

Sources of Counterclaims

The FDCPA is the most logical source of counterclaims when you are being sued by debt collectors, for several reasons.

For one thing, the law is very broad. Anything that is an “unfair” debt collection practice is illegal under the FDCPA. Although several things are specified in the Act, many other things have been found to violate the law. That allows you to be a little creative.

Secondly, the FDCPA does not require any sort of “intent” to harm you. All you have to do is show that the debt collector did what you say is illegal. And you don’t actually have to have been hurt by what the debt collector did. That means that the unfair collection practice you claim they did does not have to have fooled you or hurt you at all.

In fraud cases, to give an example of a different kind of law, you have to prove that the person you claim defrauded you meant to do it (intent) and that it somehow harmed you (they did fool you, and you lost money). This makes claims under the FDCPA much easier than most other lawsuits. Finally, there is the question of evidence. Many FDCPA claims arise out of the debt collector’s lawsuit against you, and this will be part of the record, but all of the claims will be relatively easy to prove. Here are some articles that discuss some possible claims under the FDCPA:

There are other sources of possible counterclaims, however. There is a law in consumer law that provides that any time you would have a claim or defense against the seller, you also have that claim or defense against someone trying to collect the bill.That means that if you were ripped off by a seller, and then a debt collector comes after you, you can sue the debt collector for that fraud. If you do, you will probably have some significant advantages, as the debt collector probably does not have access, much less inexpensive, convenient access, to the witnesses it would need to defend the case. And there are other possible claims – like defamation or possible violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

What You Actually Do

Assuming you decide to bring a counterclaim, what you actually do is attach it to your Answer. That is, you create your Answer, and then at the end you add allegations that would support your counterclaim. The materials in my Litigation Manual provide you samples of these.

 

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.

Special Conditions in Pennsylvania Debt Law

I often tell people that they might simply deny every allegation of the petition and put the plaintiff to the burden of proving the case. In Pennsylvania, however, there is a much more powerful method for most debt cases: “Preliminary Objections.”

Preliminary Objections are a form of motion to dismiss based on the inadequacy of the pleadings brought against you. PA Rule of Civil Procedure 1019 requires that a plaintiff bringing a lawsuit based on a writing (which every credit card is) must have the contract attached to it or else include allegations in the petition from which the whole sum of money claimed could be derived.

The only catch to Preliminary Objections is that they must be filed before answering the petition or the objections are considered “waived” (let go). If you are in Pennsylvania, then, you should strongly consider getting my Silver Bullets package (for Pennsylvania, obviously). The package also contains an extremely powerful motion to dismiss any claim for “account stated,” which is the way the debt collectors have used to try to avoid Rule 1019.

The Answer and Some Early Defense of Debt Litigation

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