Three Questions and Answers about Discovery

When Does the Process Begin, What Is the Court’s Role, and How Do the Methods of Discovery Relate to One Another?

I get certain basic questions about the discovery process quite often.

  • When can you begin conducting discovery? And when can the debt collector do it?
  • How do interrogatories, requests for documents, and requests for admissions relate to one another?
  • And What is the Court’s involvement in the discovery process?

The answers aren’t always clear, but this article will answer these questions to the extent they can be answered.

When Does Discovery Begin?

The simplest answer to this question is no answer at all: Discovery begins when the Rules of Civil Procedure for your jurisdiction say it begins. I have discovered that the discovery process begins at very different times for different courts.

Federal Courts

In the federal courts, the defendant can serve discovery immediately upon being served with the summons, whereas the plaintiff must wait for some time before beginning the discovery process. I guess this is a way of allowing a defendant to focus on investigating the complaint and filing an answer.

Most State Courts

In most state courts, the parties can begin discovery at the same time, either immediately or after some period of time, usually thirty days after service. In debt law cases, though, I have rarely observed that debt collectors begin discovery as quickly as they could. My guess is that they are hoping everybody will default (and most defendants do), so it would be wasteful to start the discovery process before the time for default has passed. This gives a defendant an advantage to begin the discovery process before the debt collector does, and this advantage should not be allowed to slip away.

Some State Courts

In some state courts, most often courts of limited jurisdiction (i.e., for smaller amounts, as most debt cases are), the parties are not allowed to begin discovery without an order of the court that allows it. I think this is a terrible rule. But regardless of my opinion, you need to know if that’s the rule in your jurisdiction, and if it is you need to seek an order permitting discovery as quickly as possible. Remember that discovery is an important part of your defense. There is even one jurisdiction of which I am aware where no discovery is allowed at all. In this jurisdiction, though, you can seek a trial “de novo” if you are not happy with the result. That is, you can start the whole case over in a higher up court that does allow discovery. In Maryland, on the other hand, discovery begins immediately upon service of the suit – and ends about a month later – unless you receive permission from the court.

The important “take-away” from all this is that state laws vary, and you need to know your state’s law as soon as possible. Not finding this out is asking for trouble.

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Discovery key to victory in debt litigation

We talk a lot about how many debt defendants default on their lawsuits – or show up just to give up via settlement. It is also true that many debt defendants either feel so righteous or so helpless, or so confident for one reason or another, that they defend themselves without adequately preparing for the case. This is a recipe for disaster for these defendants – and hurts other debt defendants, too. That’s because the judges get used to substandard cases from debt defendants and stop paying attention.

And THAT’S on top of the fact that most judges identify with the wealthy – and are wealthy – or at least identify with the lawyers. The guy representing the debt collector may not have golfed with the judge, but chances are good that the judge has golfed with a friend of his.

It’s a club, and you’re not in it.

For you to have a chance, you have to do something to stand out and apart from all the other people filing through the courtroom every day. You have to take some action that will allow the judge to get to know you a little bit – just enough to pay attention to you and the law. And of course you must know the right law so that you can explain that other hurtle – the judge’s ignorance.

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying…

A lot of judges are quite smart, and some… not so much. But you must realize that judges handle potentially thousands of cases per year, and in the case of judges dealing with debt cases, that number could be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, of cases. They’re busy, and they barely have time to learn the fine points of the law if they don’t already know them. And most of debt law is both controlled by the fine points of laws and rules, and unknown to most lawyers. There is a very good chance, in other words, that your judge DOES NOT KNOW the law you’re depending on. And he or she barely cares. How do you break through?

Discovery – the Key to Your Best Chance

Ironically, the debt collectors will always object to all or almost all of your discovery, and this will give you an excellent reason to learn much more about the law in a useful context. Even more importantly, it will give you a reason to practice talking to the court and an opportunity to make yourself known to the judge. And it gives you the excuse to start educating the judge on what HE needs to know in order to be fair to you.

You need to discovery to have a good chance to win. And if you do it, you also dramatically increase the chances that the debt collector will walk away from your case long before trial.