If a debt collector is suing you, you may be intimidated or even panicked. You may be thinking about giving up, but that usually isn’t a good idea. You have an excellent chance to win if you will just fight a little bit. Defending yourself isn’t that hard.
If They Have Already Filed Suit
If you are already in a lawsuit, you need action now. You should be doing things to protect yourself NOW. Our debt defense system gives people what they need to defend themselves.
You can beat them. It’s mostly a question of knowing what you need to do and doing that thing throughout the lawsuit. At the same time, not doing the things you should not do is equally important. It sounds simple, and it is – if you know what you’re doing. You can know those things with the Debt Defense System and get help doing the right things while avoiding the wrong ones.
You have probably heard of the saying, “inch by inch it’s a cinch.”
Defending a lawsuit is never actually a cinch. However, debt defense just requires a series of decisions and steps. These are steps that anybody with some determination can take. You can do them well enough to do a good job overall of defending. And that is usually good enough to win.
I have had a great deal of experience both as a litigator and web master. Over the years, I’ve realized that almost everyone representing himself or herself in a debt case does much better with an opportunity to talk to other people facing the same issues. People can help each other with insights and information. Seeing a variety of samples is helpful as well. The Debt Defense System, gets you a membership which gets you the full resources of Your Legal Leg Up’s website and our weekly teleconferences.
Pro se (Self-Representation) in Debt Litigation – Easier than you Think and Sometimes Even Fun
Should You Represent Yourself in Debt Law?
Pro se defense (representing yourself) in debt cases is not as hard as many people fear. You can do it – and you may need to do it.
Although hiring a lawyer might be the “gold standard” of defense, lawyers are always expensive. If a debt collector is suing you, and you can’t afford a lawyer, you still have a chance. You CAN represent yourself. This is not complicated law, debt collectors are not innovative or particularly energetic, and the debt collection system is a “factory” approach. It isn’t designed to work against people who defend themselves intelligently. You can do it and win.
Okay – maybe debt defense isn’t always very fun. In fact, most of the time it isn’t exactly fun, but it is easier than you expect, and winning is great. Going from the threat of having to pay (somehow) $1,000 to $50,000 to some debt collector, to having them drop the case – or to settling with you for pennies on the dollar… that’s fun.
And it changes the way you look at debt and debt law forever.
Pro se legal representation means representing yourself rather than hiring a lawyer to do it for you. You have the right to do that in essentially any court proceeding, whether as defendant or plaintiff. And it doesn’t matter whether the matter is civil (for money) or criminal.
Some Think It’s Scary
Although many people fear the thought of representing themselves in court, pro se representation is not rare. According to National Center on State Courts in 1991-92, 71% of domestic relations (family law) cases had at least one unrepresented party, and in 18% of the cases both parties were pro se. It is a growing trend in debt collection law as well as family law and other matters.
The right of self-representation has long been established in the United States. It predates even the ratification of the Constitution, as Section 35 of the Judiciary Act of 1789—enacted by the first Congress and signed by President Washington, states that, “in all the courts of the United States, the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally or by the assistance of counsel.” Most states have a similar constitution provision.
Will the Courts Protect You from Mistakes?
The California rules of Civil Procedure explicitly express a preference for resolution of every case on the merits, even if resolution requires excusing inadvertence by a pro se litigant that would otherwise result in a dismissal. The Judicial Council justifies this rule with the argument that “Judges are charged with ascertaining the truth, not just playing referee.” And the Council suggests “the court should take whatever measures may be reasonable and necessary to insure a fair trial.”
Although most states and the federal courts share this bias in favor of hearing courts on “their merits,” (based on what is actually fair), pro se litigants cannot rely on any special treatment. Some courts explicitly will not extend favorable treatment to non-professional litigants.
Pro Se Litigants Often Do Very Well
They may not need any extra help. According to Erica J. Hashimoto, an assistant professor at the Georgia School of Law, criminal defendants are “not necessarily ill-served” by the decision to represent themselves. In state court, pro se defendants charged with felonies probably fared much better than represented defendants. Of the 234 pro se defendants studied by Ms. Hashimoto, “just under 50 percent of them were convicted on any charge….for represented state court defendants, by contrast, a total of 75 percent were convicted of some charge.” And just 26 percent of the pro se defendants ended up with felony convictions, whereas 63 percent of represented defendants in Ms. Hashimoto’s study did. In federal court…the acquittal rate for pro se defendants is virtually identical to the acquittal rate for represented defendants.
Of course there could well be other important variables that the Hashimoto study did not include. It seems clear, however, that there is nothing like an “automatic penalty” for daring to represent yourself. And as I have pointed out many times elsewhere, there are certain types of cases and situations where pro se representation may actually be an advantage.
In debt collection cases, for example, the economic factors often outweigh legal issues, and a vigorous pro se defendant can gain a significant advantage by being able to take energetic steps in his or her favor that a lawyer—always on the clock—would pragmatically be unable to take.
Courts are not always favorable to self-represented people for various reasons. You face a headwind when it comes to the court taking what you say seriously, for example. But even with that bias, pro se plaintiffs have recorded some significant victories in civil courts.
Most members of Your Legal Leg Up, for example, either win their cases outright or reach very satisfying agreements.
Pro Se Representation in Debt Collection Cases
As pointed out above, defendants in debt collection cases have some significant economic advantages in conducting their cases. They also have fewer of the disadvantages that many other types of cases have. This may simply be because debt collection cases tend to be document-intensive rather than witness-intensive. In the somewhat unusual case which actually goes to trial, the evidentiary questions are pretty basic: can the debt collector produce enough evidence? And is their evidence “admissible” under the rules? That is, do the rules let the court consider it?
You almost never need to call a witness in debt cases.
This basic legal simplicity, the fact that debt defendants obviously did not seek out and initiate the suit, and the general economic difference between typical debt defendants and plaintiffs often seem to create a favorable impression on the judges.
Protect Your Rights
If debt collectors are contacting you, you need to be alert to protect your rights. These calls are often a prelude to their suing you. You might consider membership with our site, which gets you our ecourses for free, plus gives you many other benefits.Check out some of our e-courses. Or consider our prepaid legal plan to protect you from future possible litigation. With that, if a debt collector sues you, you’ll get a lawyer to defend you for free.
What if a debt collector sues you for a debt and think you really owe the money? Should you defend yourself from the suit?
Debt collectors often sue the wrong people and usually overcharge. If you don’t defend, you run the risk of having to pay twice. And if you do defend yourself, you probably won’t have to pay at all. If that bothers you, give the money to somebody who really needs it.
Most People Debt Collectors Sue May Actually Owe Someone Some Money
If a debt collector is suing you, you probably think you owe them the money. Or think you owe someone the money, although it’s surprising how often people who do NOT owe anybody any money get sued. If that’s you – you still need to fight the case, it won’t go away by itself. But if you actually do owe somebody the money for which you are being sued, you still need to be careful.
And you should still defend yourself as well as you can.
You must make the debt collector prove every part of its case. This includes not only that you owe the money, but that you owe it to them. And exactly how much you supposedly owe. That’s because old debts get sold – often more than once – and if you don’t make the debt collector prove it owns the debt, you may pay the wrong person. And then you might have to pay again if the person that actually owns the debt sues you.
In addition, most people do not owe what the debt collectors are trying to collect. They routinely add fees and interest they should not, and consumer protections agencies and organizations say that almost all debt collection suits include extra charges. Many of them are for far more than is owed.
The Good News
The good news about debt collectors is that they usually CANNOT prove their cases if you make put them to the test. The whole process by which they get these debts is so sloppy and careless that they usually cannot find or obtain the proof that they need to win their case. IF you defend yourself.
If you would like us to take a look at your case and give you a sort of roadmap to what you need to do and how, take a look at our Personalized Evaluation product. If a debt collector is suing you and you know you want to defend yourself without spending a lot of money on lawyers, then get out Debt Defense System.
Protect Your Rights
If debt collectors are harassing you, you need to be alert to protect your rights. These calls are often a prelude to their suing you. You might consider membership with our site, which gets you our ecourses for free, plus gives you many other benefits.Check out some of our e-courses. Or consider our prepaid legal plan to protect you from future possible litigation. With that, if they do sue you, you’ll get a lawyer to defend you for free.
How to Answer the Petition When You’re Sued for Debt
When you’re sued for debt, one of the first things you have to do is write and file an Answer. This is your formal response to the lawsuit. You could lose the case very easily usually automatically – until you do. Luckily, it isn’t hard, and this video and article will show you how. For more detailed information and help on fighting and winning your suit against the debt collector, get the Debt Defense System.
Answering a petition in a debt law case is actually very simple. Keeping in mind that it is up to the plaintiff to prove its case if you deny a part of the petition, there is little incentive to admit anything.
Should you Admit or Deny?
Pro se defendants also frequently overestimate the things they should admit. For example, you may know that you borrowed some money or used a credit card, but do you really know how much you borrowed or whether all the charges were legitimate? Do you know for sure that you did not pay some of the debt or that you truly, legally, owed every amount claimed? And do you know with certainty even that the company suing you owns the debt at all?
In most cases, the answers to these questions is legitimately “no.”
Most people do not keep careful enough track of their credit card bills (or other bills) to need to admit either the fact or amount of debt. And there’s really no way you could know whether you owe anything to a third-party debt collector.
With those things in mind, answering the petition is easy. It will usually go something like this:
The reason an Answer is so easy is that the pleadings stage – the petition and answer – really exist just to tell the court what issues need to be proved. Since you want the debt collector to prove its whole case, you deny every allegation.
There’s Much More to Pro Se Defense
Of course that’s just the first step in the process of defending yourself. You will also need to consider whether you have a counterclaim. If so, you should submit that as part of your Answer. And then you need to try to win the case. The Answer frames the issues, and you will need to conduct discovery and do some legal research to win the case. It isn’t always easy, but putting up a legitimate fight is within the ability of anyone. And fighting is often all you need to do to win.
Don’t be a Verification Sucker – Request for Verification is NOT a Substitute for an Answer
Debt verification (also called “validation”) of your debt is an important right. If the debt collector brings suit, though, it’s too late. Demanding validation will NOT prevent a default judgment if you try it after the debt collector brings suit. In fact, a lawsuit does NOT trigger the right to verification at all.
People in debt trouble hear a lot about debt validation, and it can be a valuable right. Even though it requires little from the debt collector, making the demand seems to cause some debt collectors to go away. It will at least send a signal to the debt collector that you will defend your rights.
If the debt collector has filed suit, you must defend the lawsuit and file an answer (or appropriate motion) in court. If you don’t answer, the debt collector usually gets a default judgment. That effectively ends your rights to fight the debt.
That’s because, under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), filing suit is not an “initial contact” for purposes of verification. Validation is designed to keep debt collectors from suing the wrong people. After they file suit, it’s too late for that. Instead, the courts will decide.
Or so goes the legal precedent. The debt collectors know – and we all know – that most people do not protect themselves in court.
Make sure you do. You have to file an answer or the appropriate motion to do this.
When a debt collector (or creditor) files suit against you, you will have to file an answer in court to avoid a default judgment. Many people think all they have to do is “dispute the debt and request verification.” The right to verification, however, applies only to collection efforts that are not part of a lawsuit. Don’t be a verification sucker – file an Answer and defend yourself.
An assignment contract provides the “terms and conditions” of mass debt sales. If you can force the debt collector to give it to you, you improve your chance of defending yourself in a debt lawsuit. We discuss why in the video and text below.
The Actual Assignment Contract is BIG
The bill of sale is not an assignment contract. It is essentially a note (that could be many pages long) that refers to the sale of property. The terms of sale are important, but they are in the assignment contract rather than the bill of sale. They will help you decide what the debt collector has or could get for trial. They could also affect who the “real” owner of the debt is. Also, the debt collectors hate for you to get this document. Fighting for it may cause them to drop your case.
No Magic Bullets
We say there are “no magic bullets” in debt defense. Every so often, though, we find a few things that seem almost like they would or should be. However, the sort of “magic bullets” we refer to, and that don’t work, are simple, formulaic things. Think writing the word “refused” on the summons or claiming it is illegal to use your name.
If you think these might work, you are not using common sense. And if you think using all capital letters matters in some way, you are just wrong. But some people claim these things will bring you easy victory. However, spending energy on them is more likely to hurt your case than help it.
Certain things, however, can make a dramatic impact on your case. They won’t magically end the fight or reliably make the debt collectors go away all by themselves. But they can make a big difference if you know what to do with them. One of these things is the Assignment Contract. That’sthe agreement assigning the debt in question from the original creditor to the debt collector. In many cases debt collectors would rather lose the case than give you the contract.
What is an Assignment Contract?
An assignment contract is the contract between the original creditor and the debt collector. The original creditor sells (large numbers of) debts to the debt collector according to certain terms. Selling debts is perfectly legal and is a widespread and commercially reasonable thing to do. Unless your contract with the original creditor prohibits transfer or assignment(very rare in consumer debt), there’s nothing wrong with doing it.
You don’t expect these things to be done on an individual basis, though, do you? No. Consumer debts are bought and sold by the hundreds of thousands at a time. The original creditors – often banks, utilities like phone companies, or gyms – create “portfolios” of debt which they sell to junk debt buyers according to certain terms. These terms are found in the assignment contracts, and assignment contacts are not little things. They are lengthy contracts of 20-30 pages that apply to all of the debts bought and sold in a given transaction.
The assignment contracts set the rules for what the debt collector can get from the original creditor if it needs to sue to collect the debts. I provides for how long the original creditor has to provide the material, and how much getting that information will cost. The contracts have many interesting features, and the debt collectors will assuredly NOT want you to see them. In fact, in many cases, the debt collectors would rather dismiss their case against you than let you see the contract.
Not Bills of Sale
Assignment contracts are not bills of sale. The bill of sale is a one-page document that says something “All the debts identified in Exhibit A, attached, are hereby sold and assigned to Company X.” It could also be a bit longer than that, but the main thing is that it does not outline the rules of the deal in detail. As we have often pointed out, debt collectors often hate to provide the bill of sale or, more often, the accounts subject to a bill of sale.
But they REALLY don’t want to give you the assignment contract.
What the Assignment Contracts Contain (that Debt Collectors Don’t Want you to See)
There are two main things the assignment contracts contain that debt collectors do not want you to know about. They don’t want you to know what they think of their own records, and they don’t want you to know how much time, and how much money, it takes for them to obtain records from the original creditors.
Debts are Sold “As Is”
As you will notice if you take the time to read through the assignment contracts, original creditors sell debts to debt collectors “as is” and without any warranty. Specifically, that means that the original creditor specifically disclaims any guarantee that the debts or supporting information they’re selling to the debt collectors are legitimate, accurate, or trustworthy.
The natural and intuitive conclusion is that the records are NOT reliably accurate. Nevertheless, some courts have ruled that they are sufficiently trustworthy to justify admission of the documents in question. The argument needed to use lack of warranty is therefore sophisticated.
Documents will Take Time and Cost the Debt Collector Money
Another important fact about the Assignment Contracts is that they usually establish that the debt collector can obtain certain specific documents from a certain, very small percentage of debts. And the original creditors give themselves a minimum of sixty (60) days to provide requested information upon receiving the request. Both of these facts are hugely important to people representing themselves pro se – and for the pro se movement at large.
Sixty days is longer than the amount of time permitted in any state’s rules of discovery of which we are aware. That means, in plain English, that if you request documents, the debt collector will never be able to provide you documents within the time permitted by law. They can get extensions – the courts are generous with time, normally – but even with extensions they may not be able to provide the documents within the required time. Therefore, you should push hard to get the information.
It may even be that in California this arrangement violates the California Rules of Civil Procedure – and you have an even more powerful weapon at your disposal to attack their case.
It is important that the original creditors charge for documents and only require themselves to provide documents in a small percentage of the debts. If EVERYONE asked for documents, the costs might bury the debt collectors. And the delays would likely make it impossible for them to answer discovery at all. They would have to change their whole way of doing business.
Another Way to Attack the Debt Collectors
You don’t have to have the Assignment Contracts to make life harder for debt collectors and better for you. If the debt collectors after you use credit damage as a collection tool, this gives you an advantage. You can start the ball rolling even faster than through formal discovery.
Get your credit report. If you find them on there and dispute the debt under the FCRA, they get thirty (30) days to “conduct a reasonable investigation” into the dispute. They can’t get the information in most cases in less than 60 days. They will either have to withdraw the negative information or you can sue them for that. The FCRA gives you attorney fees if you win that suit, so you may get a lawyer for free.
If they do withdraw the reference, you might use that against them in defending their suit against you.
Press – Hard – for the Assignment Contract
Under all the circumstances, you should use the discovery process to get the assignment contracts. Debt collectors do not want to provide this to you. They will lie about its existence, deceive you if they can, and stonewall you to the limits of their ability. We are developing tools for our members to use to make this fight a little easier.
 There are groups of people who energetically claim that things like this make a difference. They can’t point to a strong case opinion that backs them up, but this doesn’t stop them.
Defending pro se may have just become an even more important option for debt defendants.
The Supreme Court has recently damaged debt defendants’ rights with two very important decisions. These decisions attack the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). One allows debt collectors to bombard the bankruptcy courts with outdated claims. The other holds that junk debt buyers are not “debt collectors” under one important definition of the FDCPA. Together, these rulings change the landscape of defense. One thing is clear: you need to know your rights more now than ever. Defending pro se may be the only kind of debt defense you can get anymore.
Pro Se Defense
Let’s start with what “defending pro se” is. Pro se means representing yourself in a lawsuit. This eliminates big legal fees, but it ALSO means taking on the burdens and risks of defending yourself. Hiring the right lawyer is the “gold standard” of defense, but hiring lawyers is expensive. Additionally, recent Supreme Court rulings will make it harder to get a debt lawyer at all. Still, in most debt cases people can handle their own defense. The law is not complicated, and debt cases are document, rather than witness, intensive. Defending pro se even has some significant advantages in the debt law context.
Who is a Debt Collector
In Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., No. 16349 (Slip Op. 6-12-17), the Supreme Court ruled that junk debt buyers are not“debt collectors” under one provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). I discuss that case, its impact, and what action people need to take regarding it, in my article and video, “Who Is a Debt Collector – Supreme Court Tries to Destroy the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and what to Do about that.” In general, the effect of Santander is to make it more difficult to establish that a junk debt buyer is a debt collector, and it may signify that the Supreme Court would not let you sue junk debt buyers under the FDCPA at all.
Harder to Get a Lawyer
Santander is going to make it more difficult for you to get a lawyer to defend you in a debt case – and more expensive if you can get one. That’s because the FDCPA applies only to debt collectors and gives you certain counterclaims, and certain defenses, that make defending you easier. The FDCPA also includes a “fee-shifting” provision which allows a consumer to make a debt collector pay for most of the time a lawyer spends on a case. These things – ease of defense and a rich company to pay fees – make FDCPA cases attractive to lawyers. Take away the FDCPA, and the lawyers are going to have to charge more – a LOT more. And they simply won’t take as many cases because they’re harder. This means that debt law defendants, already drastically underrepresented, are going to find it much more difficult to hire lawyers. Defending pro se has become a much more important option.
Debt Collectors Will Run Wild
The decision in Santander threatens to neutralize the FDCPA and let junk debt buyers – who now make up the vast majority of debt collectors – run completely wild. They will be much freer to abuse, deceive, harass – in short, all the tricks that brought about the FDCPA in the first place because the laws regulating them will have been predominantly removed. At the same time it makes getting a lawyer much more difficult, the decision in Santander will likely result in a large number of new and wrong lawsuits. HOWEVER, Santander does not negate any (or very few, anyway) of your defenses in a debt law case, and it does not reduce the burden of proof for debt collectors. You can still win, in other words, but you very well may have to do it yourself.
Bankruptcy is one refuge debtors have from debt collectors. In general, you can file bankruptcy and force all your creditors to stop contacting you and, instead, file their claims in your bankruptcy action. In theory, the court will then either grant those claims or deny them according to what is right. The dirty little secret of bankruptcy, though, is that if claims are not disputed, they are generally granted. In bankruptcy cases brought by poor people (you can bet Donald Trump never had this problem), the lawyers representing the bankrupts have little incentive to dispute wrongful claims. There’s a U.S. trustee who is supposed to oversee the process and protect the bankrupt and legitimate creditors from bad claims, but guess what?
They usually don’t.
So bad claims get allowed. In most bankruptcies, allowing a bad claim means that it’s going to get paid (eventually) by the person filing for bankruptcy.
Junk Debt Buyers Make Things Worse
Enter the junk debt buyers. They buy LONG overdue debt – debt far beyond the statute of limitations – and file claims in bankruptcy cases. This bogs the bankruptcy courts and everyone involved down. As a practical matter this results in people paying billions to debt collectors who have no right to collect. This crushes people who declared bankruptcy and rips off legitimate creditors whose debts get paid at a lower rate.
Some debtors were suing debt collectors under the FDCPA for filing outdated claims in bankruptcy. The FDCPA has a “fee-shifting provision,” that means consumer lawyers who win make the debt collectors pay their fees. That gave debtors’ bankruptcy lawyers at least some financial incentive to bring these claims and dispute unenforceable claims. They were doing so as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, and the debtors were also bringing suit outside of the bankruptcy context as well.
FDCPA Does Not Apply In Bankruptcy
The Supreme Court negated the FDCPA’s protection with its holding in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17). In that case, the Court ruled that debt collectors could file claims in bankruptcy that they know are unenforceable in an ordinary court (and would violate the FDCPA if filed there). For a fuller discussion of that case, look at my article and video, “Bankrupts Beware, FDCPA No Longer Applies – Opening the Floodgates to Bad Claims.”
Midland Funding means, in practical effect, that even if you’re in bankruptcy you’re going to have to know and protect your own rights. Your lawyer has LITTLE (personal) incentive to challenge bad claims, and likewise the U.S. Trustee has VERY LITTLE time (or incentive) to do it. If the court allows the claims, you will probably have to pay them in all likelihood. That means that even if you file for bankruptcy you must prepare to defend yourself against the debt collectors. You will AT LEAST need to know your rights, and you will very probably have to defend them pro se despite having a bankruptcy lawyer.
Defending Pro Se
The Supreme Court’s decisions in Henson and Santander mean debt defendants will get much less help from lawyers. These cases are still possible to defend against and win – they’re as easy as any law gets, probably. Because so many fewer defendants will fight, you will probably have even better chances of winning YOURS. It’s less profitable for debt collectors to fight now because they will have so many more easy wins. But you are more likely to have to do it yourself now than ever.
In Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., (“Santander”), the Supreme Court hurt the FDCPA and attacked the rights of consumers. Its ruling means that the FDCPA will no longer apply to most debt collectors. This decision will make it far more difficult for debt defendants to obtain legal representation. And it will cause debt collectors to engage in more deceptive, dishonest and abusive behavior.
If you are facing debt collectors, you should know your rights and may need to defend yourself pro se.
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) became law In 1978. Debt collectors were so corrupt and destructive Congress they were a “threat to the American way of life.” Congress named numerous specific actions as “per se” violations of the Act. It also included the more general descriptions of “unfair,” “unconscionable,” and “deceptive” debt collection practices as illegal actions. Congress wanted to keep debt collectors from changing the forms their actions took without changing what they were basically doing.
The Supreme Court has just reduced that Congressional intent to a farce. Its ruling in Santander guarantees more dishonest, careless and abusive debt collection techniques. It means consumers and honest businesses will support the worst scavengers in the world.
Real-Life Debt Collection
Instead of holding it for collection, creditors usually sell charged-off debt to debt buyers these days. When debt buyers buy a debt, their only purpose is to collect that money by hook or by crook. Creditors used to hire debt collectors to collect on debts and pay them out of the proceeds. Now they get their money first. The debt collectors take their money from the debtors. All that has happened is that nominal ownership of the debt has changed. In other words, debt collectors have assumed a different form to pursue the very same activities.
Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc.
The Supreme Court has not allowed parties to change the form of their actions to evade the impact of laws. Santander cheerfully elevates form over substance, however. The same actors will perform the same abhorrent deeds that the FDCPA was designed to prevent.
One could consider the Court’s ruling dishonest in that it only analyzed half of the definition of “debt collectors.” In looking at Section 1692a(6), the court examined the defining language as “any person… who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” The decision then repeatedly referred to and emphasized the words “due another,” arguing that companies were only debt collectors if they fit that traditional form of collectors. In the Supreme Court’s view, debts which had long belonged to another but were sold for purposes of collection, change their nature when sold. Junk debt buyers are collecting on their own debts, not debts due another.
How the FDCPA Defines “Debt Collector”
We should look at the whole definition of “debt collector” to get a truer view of the statute’s intention.
The term “debt collector” means any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.
Section 1692a(6) (underlined portion is the part ignored by the Supreme Court in Santander, italicized word “any” is for emphasis).
The Court ignored the underlined portion of the definition because the debt collector at issue in the case was a bank. The parties agreed that Santander’s principal purpose was not the “collection of debts.” But the Court should not have ignored that portion of the definition, as its broadness showed congressional intention to get all “functional” debt collectors. Taking note of that intent, the Court should have read “debts owed… to another” to keep their substance despite the debt’s sale. Doing so would have prevented debt collectors from changing the NATURE of the debt merely by selling it to another party. This would have honored congressional intent and protected consumers.
Why the Court Did What it Did
Why didn’t the Supreme Court look at the whole statutory definition of “debt collector?”
The surface reason was that Santander was a bank – and the parties agreed that its business was not principally collecting debts. But that’s really only the surface fact. It would not have stopped the Court from considering the entire definition to garner congressional intention. And it wouldn’t have prevented the Court from giving a reasoned decision on the whole statute anyway. The Supreme Court grants certiorari only in a very small percentage of cases, and it has had numerous opportunities to examine the whole reality of debt collection. It chose the issue it wanted to address deliberately.
Plaintiffs in FCPA cases have usually relied on the “regularly collecting” debts language because it is easier to show than “principal purpose.”
Establishing a business’s “principal purpose” will be much more difficult. Few case use the term “principal purpose” of a business. While there must be some cases that address the issue, there are not many. Courts often use the the term “principal purpose” in judicial decisions, but its use is primarily generic. Opinions use the words as a synonym for “main” or “major.” I found no cases quantifying the term in any way.
“Principal Purpose” Is Hard to Prove
Junk debt buyers, who purchase billions of dollars of debt for no other purpose than to collect it in any way they can, will argue they are not debt collectors. They will claim their “principal purpose” is to “service” that debt. In their lexicon that really means extort payment in as many ways, over as long a period, as possible.
Or they will make up some other reason or claim.
This will alter the nature of the proof required to establish that the company is a debt collector. Rather than being a matter of public record, information regarding a business’s “principal purpose” will be in the possession of the debt collector. That means that parties attempting to obtain that information will have to use discovery to find it. Thus they will encounter the same stone walls, delays and unethical and oppressive litigation techniques they encounter in their other discovery attempts.
Considering the current ideology and integrity of the Supreme Court, of which debt collectors are very well aware, who knows what the courts will officially “believe?” As a debt defendant, you must now allege and prove that the debt collector’s main business is to collect debts. The judicial wind will be in your face.
Reading the Supreme Court
In theory, the decision in Santander leaves open the possibility that this “alternative” definition would extend the meaning of “debt collector” to junk debt buyers. The decision shows a court in search of a justification for a desired outcome – you should view it as a negative indication for the Court’s integrity.
Santander and another recent case, Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17) (see my article, “Opening the Floodgates of Bad Claims”), show actual hostility to the laws that protect consumers. They also show a willingness to engage in intellectually dishonest games to destroy them. As a practical matter, it will likely be several years before the Supreme Court revisits the definition of “debt collector” and applies the entire definition to the question of junk debt buyers.
What Debt Defendants Should Do
Debt defendants have almost all the same defenses to debt lawsuits they ever did. Santander applies very little to the defense of debt suits.
On the other hand, many and perhaps most lawyers are going to be scared away from taking debt cases. Many lawyers who do not understand Santander will simply regard the FDCPA as not applying to junk debt buyers. That is almost all the debt collectors in litigation these days. These lawyers won’t take debt defense cases or will charge much more for them. They will accomplish much less than they would have, too, because they will not counterclaim on your behalf. Lawyers who understand Santander will charge more and warn clients that winning is less likely than it used to be.
This means that far more debt defendants will be on their own.
Expect to see a motion to dismiss based on Santander if you currently have a counterclaim under the FDCPA. I believe you will want to amend your counterclaim to include the “principal purpose” language mentioned above. You will also need to conduct discovery designed to prove the company’s principal purpose.
Should you declare bankruptcy? When debt collectors call or bills pile up, many people look or hope for a quick, easy escape. Too many people tell them bankruptcy is that easy way out. Unfortunately, for most people it is neither easy nor a way out. It can be a costly mistake.
There might be better ways. Most people can defend themselves from debt cases (using materials provided by this site) without having to hire an expensive lawyer.
When people are being sued for debts, they often panic and look for the quickest, easiest, or least scary way out. And they often consider bankruptcy as a possible solution. There are often much more effective ways to handle old debt, especially credit card or merchant account debt in the possession of a debt collector, than bankruptcy. You can defend yourself without hiring a lawyer, and even if that doesn’t work out – which it usually does – you could still file bankruptcy. But if you can avoid bankruptcy, you will reduce the harm the debt doesyou.
Types of Debt
There are two main types of debt: “secured,” and “unsecured.” Secured debt means that the debt has specific assets backing it. If you miss payments, you can have your house foreclosed or your car repossessed. These things “secure” the debt and can be repossessed and sold if you stop making payments.
Unsecured debt is debt that is not secured – no specific assets guarantee the debt’s repayment. Just because a debt is “unsecured” does not mean that a debt collector can’t sue you for it. On the contrary, it means the collector mustsue you personally in order to collect any money. The creditor then “enforces” the judgment against you by garnishing wages or attaching accounts. But this can be difficult for various reasons.
Rights of Creditors
Lenders on secured debts are in a much better position than unsecured lenders in general. One of those advantages comes in bankruptcy.
In the bankruptcy law, the law regards an item securing a debt as the creditor’s property (the one who lent the money). If you do not make the payment owed, the creditor can just take it back. Consider a mortgage on a house. The house “secures” the debt, and if you stop making payments the bank can take the house and sell it to pay the debt. That is “foreclosure” as you probably know. The law considers it unjust to allow someone not paying for the property to keep it from the rightful owner. So the lender typically asks the bankruptcy court to “lift the stay” so foreclosure can take place. Although you can sometimes delay the lifting, the courts usually “relieve” the lenders and allow them to foreclose on the house and kick the debtor out.
With unsecured debt, on the other hand, the court simply adds up the debts and pays them out according to how much money the bankrupt person has. Usually very, very little. And only at the end of the bankruptcy procedure.
Bankruptcy May Not Help When It Applies
What all that means practically is that if you have a large secured debt (mortgage) that you cannot pay, bankruptcy will offer you very little protection. If you have a large unsecured debt, bankruptcy will probably protect you to an extent, but it is slow, time-consuming and expensive compared to defending yourself against the debt collector. And most people who start bankruptcy end the process without getting what they wanted.
Some examples may help make it clearer.
Consider the Smiths. The Smiths have a house and make payments of $2.500 per month. Mr. Smith loses his job and they fall behind in their payments. If the family seeks bankruptcy as their house payments add up, the lender will obtain “relief from the stay” and foreclose on the house. The Smiths are out of luck, and bankruptcy usually does not help.
Now consider the Joneses. If the Joneses have credit card debt of $25,000 and Mrs. Jones loses her job so they can’t make payments, they could seek bankruptcy help. It would probably cost them at least a thousand dollars or more to file, require them to disclose most or all of their finances over the past year or two, and fill out a large amount of paperwork. At the end of the proceeding, at least a year later, the court would “discharge” their debts.
If they make it to the discharge, the bankruptcy will help. But it will remain as a mark against their credit record for seven years.
An Alternative: Defense
The Jones could, however, simply defend themselves against the lawsuits brought by the debt collectors. For reasons I’ve made clear elsewhere, their chances of winning the suit would be excellent. If the Jones do it right, they can eliminate the debt completely. This does not always mean completely cleaning their credit reports. But it can often mean canceling the debt and removal of the recent credit report damage. And it usually will happen in less than six months from the date the debt collector brings suit. They won’t have the bankruptcy on their credit report. They can do it themselves for almost no money at all, and if by chance it doesn’t work, then they could declare bankruptcy.
Better results, less cost. That’s why it’s often better to defend yourself against credit card debt than to seek bankruptcy protection. It’s also true that if for any reason the Jones lost their case against the debt collectors, they could still file for bankruptcy without having lost its protection.
Making excuses in debt law cases is a good way to lose your case.
The “iron law of cause and effect” applies to everything. What this means is that, for every action, something happens as a result. No matter why it happened, if it does happen, there are consequences. There are no free lunches. Ever.
You know that. But it’s easy to forget when things get tough.
We pretend the iron law of cause and effect does not apply to us all the time. If we’re late, we apologize, and that’s usually enough to get past the other person’s anger or hurt feelings. If we apologize sincerely enough or give enough good reasons, it seems like we get away with it. But it isn’t called the “iron law” for nothing. Even if the other person excuses us, he thinks we are less dependable. And if the other person doesn’t, we think of it ourselves. Consequences.
Sincerity means not intending to do harm. Integrity means not doing it. Know the difference.
Substantive Law of Debt
If a debt collector can prove you borrowed money and didn’t pay it back, it should get a judgment against you. And if you don’t make them prove their case, they will get their judgment. Simple as that. They call that “strict liability,” which means that WHY you didn’t pay does not matter.
On the other hand, there are events that can destroy a debt. Showing payment, that it was based on fraud, or settlement to name a few, will attack the debt. But if the debt isn’t destroyed, no amount of sincerity will get you off the hook. It doesn’t matter how much you wanted to pay. It doesn’t matter how much you tried to pay. Or whether you tried at all.
It’s surprising how often people get mad at debt collectors for trying to collect debts they (the people involved) can’t afford to pay. Just because the debt collector has a ton of money doesn’t mean they won’t or shouldn’t get a judgment against you. Don’t think that way.
Instead, fight and make them prove their case if they can. Require them to prove the debt and their right to it. Luckily, they aren’t so good at that.
Excuses in Litigation
We’ve been talking about the substantive law of debt, which is almost absolute,. It’s a little murkier when you talk about procedures such as responding to motions and the like. There, excuses CAN make a difference – sometimes. If you make a mistake in doing something, this can sometimes be excused. Likewise, if you make a mistake, you should certainly try to get it excused. The sincerity of your excuse will matter then, so make it good and say it with feeling. And you might get away with it.
But even if you do get away with it, every mistake has consequences. As a pro se defendant, you work mighty hard to get the judge to take you and your words seriously. You want the judge to apply the law fairly and consistently – that’s really all you need in most debt cases to win.
Follow the Rules – Don’t Ask for Breaks
Any time you ask the judge for something special or make some kind of excuse, you will hurt your chances of the court taking you seriously and holding the debt collector to the rules. And all too often, the court will not give you the break it probably should. Thus you should always work your hardest and do your very best to understand the law and rules of your court. As much as possible, you NEVER want to ask the judge for anything she isn’t supposed to do.
And to get your best, you must give your best. Never make excuses for yourself, and never accept them from yourself. It’s impossible to be perfect, but try not to make any mistakes you don’t have to make. That isn’t a cliche or boring old saying – it’s encouragement to you to work your @ss off. The only way to avoid making mistakes is by figuring out things ahead of time and always going the extra mile. You can get away with doing less in some parts of your life, but you often cannot in litigation.
If you would like us to take a look at your case and give you a sort of road map to what you need to do and how, take a look at our Personalized Evaluation product. If a debt collector is suing you and you already know you want to defend yourself without spending a lot of money on lawyers, then get our Debt Defense System.
Protect Your Rights
Even if you are reading this article late in the game, shortly before trial, and you are not already a member, you should consider doing so. We have materials helpful to last minute defense and trial preparation even if you are facing this rule.
If it’s a little earlier in the lawsuit, or if no has filed suit yet, you have many other options. Membership can present you many benefits and help you win your case. Or you could check out some of our e-courses.