First steps in defending a debt lawsuit…

So you had a debt that you quit paying on some years ago. Perhaps you lost a job and couldn’t pay it. Perhaps a tragic medical situation left you without funds to pay seemingly harmless bills like this one. Or maybe you noticed that your minimum monthly payment amount skyrocketed because of an increased interest rate over which you had no control and decided to protest by not paying. Or maybe some other financial struggle left you with a tough decision to make: let the debt go.

Since you last paid on the account, you may have sought the advice of a debt settlement or credit repair company, but have been frustrated with the results of clearing up the debt. You have felt guilty about owing but not paying, but have not forgotten that it was there (since the negative sign on your credit report will not allow you to forget..) You’ve received, but ignored, lots of collection calls. And here lately, you have gotten some letters from attorneys threatening legal action and offering settlements that you cannot afford. But now a strange person has found you and handed you some paperwork which says you have been sued and tells you, “you have been served.”

What do you do?

First things first, do not overreact. Do not freak out. Stay calm. While no one likes to be sued and you probably do not understand what the court system will be like or what is the worst that could happen to you, you should understand that this kind of thing happens to people all the time. According to judges in our north Texas courts, as many as 60% of all cases filed annually are comprised of debt collection lawsuits. You are definitely not alone: not alone in owing money, not alone in getting sued. This happens to more people than you think.

Second, do not get upset with the person who served you with the lawsuit papers (in Texas, these papers are collectively called the Petition). This person is called a “process server” and their job is to find you and hand you the Petition. That is what they get paid to do. The process server is not the person suing you and is not affiliated with the company bringing its claim against you. The process server is literally the messenger, so don’t hurt or annoy the messenger.

Third, sit down and begin reading through the Petition. The first page, usually called the summons or citation, should read as follows: “You have been sued. You may employ an attorney. If you or your attorney do not file a written answer with the Court… then a default Judgment may be rendered against you.” You will either have 10 or 20 days to file a written response with the Court. This written response is called an Answer. The Answer is your first responsive pleading to the Court; it is your first chance to defend yourself in the lawsuit. You may assert a denial to the creditor’s claims and, depending upon your particular situation, you must include certain things in the Answer like specific affirmative defenses, a plea to the jurisdiction, special exceptions, a special appearance, and other things.

Fourth, you should read the Petition to determine what discovery you must respond to and the deadline to respond to it. Discovery is defined as the “efforts of a party to a lawsuit…to obtain information before trial through demands for information… The theory…is that all parties will go to trial with as much knowledge as possible and that neither party should be able to keep secrets from the other…” In other words, discovery is the process within a lawsuit where a party can gather information and evidence about the other party.

In most of our debt collection cases, the lawsuit paperwork will contain any of four popular forms of discovery: (1) requests for admission, (2) requests for production, (3) request for disclosure, or (4) interrogatories (these are simply written questions which require an answer to be stated under oath, or signed in front of a notary public). If the Petition contains any of these requests, you must respond to them. The deadline for responding to these requests depends upon whether the Petition with which you were served contained these requests. If the requests are contained within the Petition, your responses are due 50 days after you were served. If the requests are served to you after you were served with the Petition, they are due 30 days after you are served with the requests.

There is a lot more to the process, but these are the first steps in defending against a debt collection lawsuit.