This article is written with the assumption that the debt that you are being sued over is a valid debt and it is your debt. If neither of these assumptions is true, then there are other articles here which are more applicable.
Alright, you’ve been sued by a debt collection attorney. What do you do now if you don’t want to or simply can’t pay the debt? The very first thing you do is request a Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act debt VERIFICATION. You do this for two reasons. First and most importantly, it buys you some time. Under the FDCPA, all collection activity must cease until the attorney puts that verification in the mail to you. The verification is usually a simple statement signed by the creditor and it will not take the collection attorney long to obtain it. But for that brief period, nothing will happen. Secondly, it sends a signal to the collection attorney that you are not going to be a roll over debtor. He knows you will be active in the defense of the suit. A high percentage of collection suits simply proceed to default judgment without any response from the debtor. This request moves you out of that category. Now, some simple advice. Don’t use a form from the internet to make the FDCPA verification request. I’ve seen a lot of them lately and they ask for information and documentation the FDCPA doesn’t require the collection attorney to give you. That tells the collection attorney you really have no idea what you are doing. The form letters also make threats which simple irritate the collection attorney. And perhaps simplest enough, they are wrong. The FDCPA operates on the least sophisticated debtor standard so you don’t have to be fancy. Just make sure you do it in writing and I’d send it certified mail. Simply ask the attorney to verify the debt in accordance with the FDCPA. Next, don’t be antagonistic or stupid. Don’t threaten the lawyer or lie. Don’t threaten to sue him or report him to the Bar or say you have an attorney if you don’t. These tactics don’t intimidate collection lawyers and simply mark your file for extra special attention. Finally, a certified mail written request for an FDCPA verification may end the collection process. That is true in a very small percentage of cases, but it is worth taking as a first step.
The second step is to file a SWORN DENIAL. This needs to be a statement in WRITING that you FILE with the court where you have been sued. It can be a simple statement, but it needs to be typed, signed, notarized, filed with the clerk of the court and a copy sent to the collection lawyer. It needs to be a graduated denial. In other words, it needs to say, I deny this is my debt and if it is my debt, I deny that it is still a valid debt and if it is a valid debt, I deny the amount sued for is the correct amount. The sworn denial is a powerful tool. It eliminates the Sworn Affidavit of Account. The vast majority of collection suits proceed without a witness for the creditor The collection attorney enters an affidavit signed by the creditor that the debtor owes the debt and that is this amount. With that affidavit in hand, the court gives the creditor a judgment. When a sworn denial is filed, the debt collection attorney can not rely upon a sworn affidavit of account, but must instead produce a live witness to testify about the debt. The requirement of a live witness changes the dynamic of the collection action considerably. The likelihood that the action will go no further now increases again.
The third step is to file DISCOVERY. This is more difficult than simply filing the Sworn Denial. You need to file a written Request for Production of Documents asking for a copy of the contract or agreement upon which the debt is based. If the debt is a credit card debt, it is likely that the debt collection attorney will not be able to secure a copy of the original agreement or if he is, he will not be able to do so timely. Most credit card signature agreements are scanned or if older, microfilmed and stored away in electronic archives. If it is an old debt which has been sold to a debt purchaser the likelihood of retrieving the original signed agreement decreases dramatically. If you are being sued in a small claims type court where discovery is not permissible, ask for the agreement at trial.
The fourth step is TRIAL. SHOW UP! I can’t stress that enough. As I’ve said repeatedly, the vast majority of debt collection suits proceed to default judgment because no one shows up to dispute them. Show up and ask for a trial. And remember, the worst thing that can happen is the same thing that would have happened if you hadn’t appeared at all, a judgment. You can’t make it worse. If the attorney doesn’t have his live witness available, oppose the case being continued. Tell the judge you’ve taken off work to be there and are ready to go forward. If the judge does continue the case to a new trial date, show up again. You will need to educate yourself. You won’t be able to equip yourself to spar with an attorney, but knowing a little is better than knowing nothing. You will need to read the Rules of Procedure that govern the court and the Rules of Evidence for that jurisdiction. Look them up online. The Rules of Civil Procedure will govern how the trial is conducted. The Rules of Evidence will govern what the Judge is allowed to see and hear. If you do have a trial and the creditor produces a live witness, attack the witness first and the debt second. The witness can only testify from personal knowledge. Generally, the witness has no personal knowledge about you or your account, but only knows what’s in the file he got from the collection department. If he is going to testify without personal knowledge, but from the records and documents of the business, then he has to have a basis to do so. He needs to be the regular keeper of those books and records and be familiar with how they are kept and their contents. Don’t simply accept his answer when the debt collection lawyer asks him if he is the regular keeper of those books and records and be familiar with how they are kept and their contents and he says yes. Ask him how long he has been with the company, in that job, what he does on a daily basis, when he first saw your file, if he knows from personal knowledge if it’s a complete file, etc. You must destroy his credibility and ability to testify about the papers he has in front of him. If you can do that, then the debt collection attorney has no case. If the witness is actually a good witness and you can’t prevent him from testifying from your file, then you need to know your defenses to the debt. The best defense is the Statute of Limitations. The Statute of Limitations is the time limit that an aggrieved party has in which to file a lawsuit. It is a drop dead deadline. Find out what your states is and whether the creditor is beyond that date. If they are, ask the court to dismiss the suit.
The last step, should you lose at trial, is to APPEAL. Appeals can take a long time to work through the system, from months to years. That time is valuable and no collection action such as garnishments can occur during the pendency of the appeal (unless you live a jurisdiction that requires you post an appeal bond to stop collection during an appeal).
At each step in the process, you increase your chances that the debt collection attorney will give and simply put your file away. But remember, always be polite, never cuss and don’t hang up on him. You simply don’t want to make your case personal.