Question: I am not attorney, but I want to represent myself in a debt collection lawsuit. What are the major pitfalls that I should study at the law library or online, so that I am ready to take the case to trial?
My response: There are so many books on the web that brag about having had one or two victories in court against debt collection lawyers. While I have gotten many collection cases dismissed for my clients and settled many others, when an individual expects to prevail in court on an unpaid debt, probably they have read too many web sites selling books and other materials that probably will do nothing, other than get a money judgment entered against them for the full balance, plus interest, costs and attorney’s fees.
Here are several of the major pitfalls, which is why it takes years of law school and experience defending debt collection cases, to really be able to have a sound strategy to help the client reach the outcome they desire for the case:
a. If the answer to complaint contains errors, the court may disregard it and enter a money judgment, if the Plaintiff’s attorney files a motion to strike or demurrer to the answer to complaint. Sometimes, the Defendant does not pay the court’s appearance fee.
b. The Plaintiff’s attorney sends written discovery to the Defendant or sets their deposition to answer questions under oath. If the defendant fails to respond timely and in proper form, the Plaintiff’s attorney can seek sanctions of more money or limit the important facts at trial.
c. The Plaintiff’s attorney can file a motion for summary judgment, which adds more costs to the case ($500). If granted, there is no trial, only a judgment.
d. The Plaintiff’s attorney can ask questions at trial of the Defendant, many of which might result in the court entering a judgment.
e. The court can set hearings and conferences that require both sides to attend. Missing these can cause the court to strike the answer to complaint.
f. The Plaintiff’s attorney offers evidence at trial that is hearsay or unreliable, but the defendant does not object properly or fails to explain why the evidence should be rejected, so the evidence is admitted and a money judgment entered.
g. The Defendant does not understand the rules that apply to the debt lawsuit, such as the Statute of Limitations, so they expend their efforts on incorrect views of the law and don’t pursue legitimate defenses that an experienced attorney would have found.
I have had many clients come to me after they try to represent themselves. They typically received papers from the Plaintiff’s attorney or from the court, but didn’t know how to respond, so that they are facing sanctions or have been sanctioned by the court for noncompliance. Or, even worse, a judgment has been entered at trial, but the defendant still believes that they should spend more time and money on an appeal.