“Do I need to respond to their Motion for Summary Judgment or can I file a motion to dismiss at this point?”
I received this question in a teleconference, and it brings up three extremely important issues that every person defending himself or herself from debt collectors needs to keep in mind. First, the comparative functions of a Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Summary Judgment. Second and more generally, the importance of responding to every motion or action taken by the debt collectors, and third, still more generally, the level of effort you need to put into your defense. Here’s the whole question as it was asked:
I requested discovery and responded. A few weeks later, they filed a motion for summary judgment with an affidavit for indebtedness (which was not included in their discovery), a bill of sale and assignment (which does not include any amounts or any account information), and a copy of a 2008 card statement. Do I need to respond to their Motion for Summary Judgment? Or can I I file a Motion to Dismiss at this point?
Motions to Dismiss vs. Motions for Summary Judgment
There is a lot of confusion about motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment, even among some experienced lawyers. To put it very simply, regardless of what a party filing a motion calls it, if the motion makes reference to, or depends in any way for its outcome, on matters other than the pleadings, the motion is to be considered a motion for summary judgment. That means the motion should follow the rules regarding motions for summary judgment, and you have the time permitted by the rules for summary judgments (generally longer) rather than responding to motions to dismiss (generally shorter).
If there is any important fact in the motion that is not also in one of the pleadings, the motion should be treated as a motion for summary judgment. Thus a motion to dismiss is not the correct motion to file when the other side files a motion depending on undisclosed discovery or when the only evidence it provides in discovery would not be enough to prove its case.In this case, where the debt collector has already filed a motion for summary judgment, you must respond in opposition to their motion for summary judgment and, in the same response, file a “cross-motion” for summary judgment.
The Need to Respond
Whenever the debt collector files a motion of any sort you need to respond to it.
Theoretically, if you filed a motion to dismiss, the court might look at your motion first, decide that the debt collector has no case, and dismiss the action as a whole. That would be easy and convenient for you. There’s too good a chance, however, that the judge will consider his or her convenience before considering yours. In fact, you should take that as a given – as something that will definitely happen. You should expect the judge to rule on the easiest thing available and skip everything else – and what’s easier than an uncontested motion? Therefore you must oppose any motion the other side files. In my opinion this is especially important when you’re a “little guy” taking on a “bigger guy.” The courts are – often if not always – prejudiced in favor of the big guy, and you cannot afford to leave an “easy out.”
Level of Effort
I am often asked variations on, “should I go ahead and… ‘X’ or wait until… ‘Y’ happens?” Should you ever wait for either the other side to take some action or for the court to rule on something? Generally, NO. There are two reasons for this: time is always limited; and it is important to keep the initiative in litigation as much as possible.
Time Is Limited
Whether or not the court enters a “scheduling order” explicitly stating when things are due, every case is on a “time clock.” You cannot waste time. Judges will often wait until a few days before the time set for trial to rule on motions for summary judgment. I do not know why this is so – but it is simply a fact, and so it means that much of trial preparation, motions, discovery and all the rest, are conducted after a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment has been filed. You simply cannot wait for a court ruling.
Waiting for the other side is much the same. Litigants are always looking for advantages, and if they get the sense that you are going to wait for them, the debt collector will very likely take advantage of that fact. They may simply delay until you have no more time to do what you need to do, or they may delay until they have time to serve discovery on you – or take some other action which takes control of the case.
Keep the Initiative
Keeping the initiative is extremely important in litigation. It is discouraging to them, and encouraging to you, to be “calling the shots.” When you do, you can take the time you need to figure things out, you can think strategically rather than reactively, and you open up a long, weary path for the other side. When you keep working, you show the other side that continuing to chase you will be expensive, risky and… annoying. You heighten their sense that they should be spending their time chasing easier victims – or should find something actually good to do with their time (maybe, eventually). And finally as you spend effort on your case you support your own morale and you learn more about your case and the law.
For all these reasons, you should take what Tony Robbins calls “massive action.” You should take every action you can to achieve your victory. Let the other side consider how much it is costing in time and money to respond to you. If they get the sense you’re thinking that way they are much more likely to drop your case and look for greener pastures.