Sued by Debt Collectors – How to Do Some Basic Legal Research

If you are being sued on a debt by a debt collector, you may need to do some legal research and write some “motions.” Motions are the way you ask the Judge to take some action such as dismissing the case, or forcing the debt collector to give you some information you have requested. It is actually very easy to find most of the research you need already done, and you can also easily find the forms you need to follow. All this material is at the court, and it isn’t hard to find or use.

If you Need to Answer the Petition

The first document you will confront as a defendant in a debt suit is the “Complaint” or “Petition.” This is the document which says you owe the company money and why. If you look at a few of them, you’ll see that they follow a very simple pattern. In fact, in my experience, all the suits filed by any given company against my clients have looked almost exactly the same, with only the numbers changed. This isn’t rocket science. They do it because they learn how to say what they want to say, and they do it again and again. Makes sense, right?

The flip side of that, though, is that once you have seen a response you’ll know exactly what to say.

Where to Look for information

Every court has clerks, and these days almost all the courts also have computer records of every case filed in the jurisdiction. You can ask a clerk to direct you to that computer. Once there, you do a simple search: “name of the company suing you.” There may be hundreds of entries brought up by this search, and if you go to the files you will see that almost every one begins with a petition that looks remarkably like yours. But wait. You want to see the response- that is what tells you what to do. And for this, you’re going to want the pages that are sometimes called the “docket sheets” and sometimes called the “case histories” of a few of the cases you have located. Or perhaps you can glean the information directly from the table of contents for the case.

Find a Case Like Yours Where the Defendant Had a Lawyer

In any event, you want the cases in which the party being sued is represented by a lawyer. You will note that this is almost always the case when the case history is more than a few lines long. Specifically, you want to find an Answer filed by the lawyer. This will be noted in the computer. Go to the physical file, which in most cases will be located very close to the clerk’s office or the judge who is hearing your case. You have a right to inspect the file, so ask to see it. Read the Answer. See how easy it would be to copy or imitate? But always look up a couple of cases so you can compare the Answers you see, since one of them might make a lot more sense to you than the others.

You Might Be Able to Do This over the Internet

If your jurisdiction is computerized, you may be able to do the computer part of search from home. These cases are not scanned into the files, though so you’re going to have to go to the court to find the physical files. If your jurisdiction is not computerized, the process is going to take a little longer. Then you go to the clerk and ask to be pointed to the physical files of the parties being sued by the company that is suing you. Because of the tendency of debt collectors to file large numbers of suits at the same time, though, these files will likely be together in the file cabinets. You look at the files-each one will have a docket sheet that will have the information I have mentioned on it already. The whole process may take a couple of hours.

If You Need to File or Respond to a Motion

Motions would be more difficult if almost all debt cases were not the same. Since they are, however, you will see that the motions filed in almost all the debt cases are nearly identical. And this is likely to be true even when the company suing you is not involved with the motion and it is some other debt collector. That is because legal parties tend to put everything available into their motions, and plaintiffs and defendants borrow freely from each other. Also, the debt collection attorneys tend to represent several different collectors.

Go back to the computer, look up cases involving the company suing you. Notice what the cases are called: “Petition on a Debt,” “Company XYZ, Assignee, vs. Some Guy,” etc. If you can’t find the motion you’re looking for in a case brought by the company suing you, you will need to find one in another debt collection case. You’ll find this by getting a specific court’s docket sheet (schedule of cases to be heard) for a particular day. Then look up cases that sound like the one the company brought against you. You will recognize them by their names and by the fact that many cases will have been filed by the same company at the same time.

Look in the cases involving your counter-party. Look at the docket sheets for individual cases. In cases defended by lawyers, you will probably see note of a motion just like the one you want to bring. “Motion to Dismiss,” “Motion to Compel Production,” “Motion for Summary Judgment.” Again, it is the uniformity of action that is your friend here. If you are needing to file a motion to compel, that is probably because the debt collector routinely does not respond to discovery requests (your requests for information). They probably do this because they never have the information, and lawyers representing their defendant clients have wanted to prove this. So they will have filed the motion you want to file. Find it. Get it, copy it.

A Caution

You will want to use some care about copying motions. It isn’t a question of whether you can copy or not. The courts expect parties to do this all the time-the courts actually like it because they can think through a set of facts and law once and apply their conclusions to all the cases. No, what you want to do, though, is make sure that you make arguments that are appropriate to your case. Don’t ask the court to force the party suing you to give you information you haven’t requested, and don’t ask the court to dismiss claims that were not brought against you. You might be surprised how often this happens, and it does not take many of them to change the way the judge listens to you. In a bad way.

So make sure that what you’re using applies to your actual situation, but then copy away. You don’t need to tell the court where you got what you’re saying, but…if the docket sheet shows that the judge granted the motion for someone else, you will probably want to point that out to the court. Remember that judges like to do the same thing each time for the same set of facts (to be fair and consistent); they also probably do not mind saving themselves the trouble of thinking through everything twice. So tell the court if a judge has already granted your motion for someone else.

Library Research

There may be times when you will need to do some research beyond the things already filed in your court. For help in that situation, please read my article entitled, “Sued by Debt Collectors: How to Do Legal Research in the Library.”