The Basics of Defending Creditor Lawsuits
This guide provides general information for New Yorkers who are facing debt collection lawsuits in the New York City civil courts. It does not apply to courts outside the state of New York. It is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice in your individual case.
Yes. In fact, these days it is quite common for creditors to file lawsuits to collect debts. In New York, the creditor typically files the lawsuit in the county where you live.
A "debt buyer" is a company that specializes in buying and collecting old debts. If you fail to repay a debt, your creditor might sell it to a debt buyer. The debt buyer will then try to collect the debt from you. This practice is legal. Debts are often bought and sold more than once.
Yes. If your creditor has sold your debt to a debt buyer, the debt buyer can sue you to collect the debt. This practice is legal.
In an ideal world, every defendant in a debt collection lawsuit would be represented by a lawyer. Practically speaking, however, most low income New Yorkers who have been sued over a debt will be unable to obtain free legal representation. And hiring a private attorney will often cost almost as much, if not more than, the debt itself. Unfortunately, most low income New Yorkers have no choice but to represent themselves in court.
You should not ignore a debt collection lawsuit because you cannot find a lawyer. Hundreds of low income New Yorkers defend themselves in debt collection cases every single day, and many do so successfully. Luckily, a debt collection case is relatively simple and straightforward as compared to other kinds of legal problems. Debt collection attorneys often rely on the fact that unrepresented defendants do not know their rights. Fight back by educating yourself about your case! Read the information in these pages to familiarize yourself with the court process and the issues you will face as a pro se defendant ("pro se" means "without a lawyer"). If possible, consult with the NYC Financial Justice Hotline or another attorney to obtain individualized advice about potential defenses you may have. In our experience, a little information goes an incredibly long way.
What is a plaintiff?
A plaintiff is the party who files the lawsuit. If a creditor or debt buyer files a lawsuit against you, the creditor or debt buyer is the plaintiff.
A defendant is the party who is sued by the plaintiff. If a creditor or debt buyer files a lawsuit against you, you are the defendant.
A summons is your official notification that you have been sued. It tells you how and where to appear in order to defend the case. For more information, see How to Read a Civil Court Summons (PDF). A summons is usually accompanied by a complaint.
A complaint explains why you have been sued. It contains the facts and the legal claims that are the basis for the lawsuit. In debt collection cases, the complaint is often very short and may provide very little information.
An answer is an official written response to a complaint. In your answer, you should write all the defenses that you want to raise in the case.
A counter-claim is a claim that you have against the plaintiff. The plaintiff may owe you money, or the plaintiff may have violated your rights or caused you some other kind of harm for which you want to recover money damages. You always have the right to file a counter-claim against the plaintiff along with your answer.
DO NOT IGNORE IT. You should always respond to a summons and complaint. The correct way to respond is to go to the clerk's office at the address provided on the summons and tell the clerk that you want to file an answer. The clerk will give you an answer form and can help you to complete it. For more detailed assistance filing your answer, contact the NYC Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929.
Yes. If you were served with the summons and complaint in person, you must file your answer within 20 DAYS. "In person" means that a process server came to your home or place of business and gave the papers to you personally. If you were served with the summons and complaint in some other way, you have 30 DAYS to file your answer.
You should try to file an answer anyway. As long as there is no judgment against you, the court will usually accept a late answer.
Your answer should contain all the defenses that you want to raise in your case. For more information, see Common Defenses to Creditor Lawsuits or call the NYC Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929.
If you are rushed for time and do not know what to write, just check the box labelled "general denial." You can always amend your answer later. However, please note that if you want to raise a defense of improper service, you MUST do so in your initial answer, or you will not be able to do so at all.
If you ignore the summons, the plaintiff will almost certainly ask the court to award a judgment against you. This kind of judgment is called a "default judgment." A default judgment usually awards the plaintiff everything that it asked for in the complaint, plus interest and court costs. The judgment will appear on your credit report, and it can stay there for up to twenty years if not satisfied. The judgment also gives the plaintiff the right to try to collect money from you by freezing your bank account or garnishing your wages. You can avoid a default judgment by filing an answer and appearing in court.
After you file an answer, the court will notify you of your first court date. Your first court date could be anywhere from 1 month to 9 months after you file your answer, depending on where you live. It is very important that you attend this court date. If you fail to attend the court date, the court will award a default judgment against you.
The 'burden of proof" is the responsibility to provide evidence in support of a legal claim.
The plaintiff -- the creditor or debt buyer -- ALWAYS has the burden of proof in a debt collection case. This means that the plaintiff has to come up with evidence to prove to the court that (1) the plaintiff has the right to sue you; (2) the debt is yours; and (3) you owe the exact amount of money that the plaintiff claims you owe. You do not have to prove that you do not owe the money. Rather, the plaintiff has to prove that you DO owe the money.
Know Your Rights!
As a defendant in a court case, you always have the right to "put the plaintiff to its proof." That means that you can insist that the plaintiff come up with actual evidence to prove that you owe a debt. Although you should always be truthful in court, you do not have to admit that the plaintiff's allegations are correct.
If you admit that the plaintiff's allegations are correct, the plaintiff can rely on your admission to win the case. But if you challenge the plaintiff's right to sue you, the existence of the debt, or the amount of the debt, the plaintiff must provide the following evidence to the court:
- Proof that the plaintiff has the right to sue you. In the case of a debt buyer, the debt buyer must prove that it owns your debt by showing the court the contract of sale. This contract is called an "assignment." The assignment must mention your debt specifically. If your debt has been bought and sold multiple times, the debt buyer must present a chain of assignments that goes all the way back to your original creditor.
- Proof that the debt is yours. Usually, this means an original contract with your signature.
- Proof that the amount demanded in the lawsuit is correct. Usually, this means a complete set of bills or account statements. In the case of a credit card, the plaintiff also has to prove that each and every charge on the card was authorized.
All of this proof must come in a specific format, or else it is considered "hearsay," not admissible in court. If the plaintiff fails to meet its burden of proof by coming up with admissible evidence of your debt, the court must dismiss the case.
The plaintiff has to present quite a lot of evidence in order to meet its burden of proof. This evidence is often difficult or expensive for the plaintiff to produce. If your debt is old, or if it has been bought and sold multiple times, evidence of your debt may not exist at all. It is almost always much easier and cheaper for the plaintiff to negotiate a settlement with you than to come up with all the evidence needed to meet the burden of proof. That is why the plaintiff will nearly always want you to agree to a settlement.
If you believe you do not owe the debt, never agree to a settlement. Insist on your defenses and put the plaintiff to its proof. If you have a solid defense, you have a good chance of winning the case.
If you would like to negotiate a settlement, use your knowledge of the burden of proof to make sure you get a settlement that works for you.
If you cannot afford to make a settlement agreement, or if your income is exempt from debt collection, you should put the plaintiff to its proof. There is a good chance that the plaintiff will be unable to meet its burden, and the case will eventually be dismissed.
Remember: If you do not appear in court, you will automatically lose. Showing up is more than half the battle!
How to Read a Civil Court Summons (PDF)
Common Defenses to Creditor Lawsuits
Preparing for Your Court Date
Negotiating A Settlement Agreement in Court
Vacating a Default Judgment
Frozen Bank Accounts
What is Exempt from Debt Collection?
Helpful Links and Resources
LawHelp/NY: attorney referrals and information for pro se litigants
National Association of Consumer Advocates: national database of consumer lawyers
New York City Civil Court: information about representing yourself in court, including contact information and court forms
eCourts: information about cases filed in New York courts
Laws of New York: complete text of New York laws
The Legal Aid Society, When The Creditor Sues, What Are My Rights? (PDF)
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