We're getting sued.
March 1, 2010 5:40 PM   Subscribe

We're getting sued.

My partner got a notice (left on our apartment steps) that he's being sued for about 6k (and possible legal fees). He was apparently very delinquent on a citibank credit card, and the debt was purchased by some other entity. This is the entity which is suing.

This is totally new territory for us, and I know we need to get a let a lawyer, but if anyone else has been through something similar, what should we expect? What happens if we don't go to court? Can we settle out of court? Can monthly payments be made? Do we have to appear in court in person, or can this be handled through correspondence? Is it legal to leave such a notice on someone's unattended apartment steps? How much can we expect to spend on a lawyer, and will it be comparable to something we could settle for anyway? And so on . . .

Any advice or insights would be hugely appreciated. We're pretty freaked-out and totally naive about this sort of thing.
posted by treepour to Law & Government (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Did you not know about this debt?

I would contact Citibank and try to work something out.
posted by Danf at 5:52 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: Definitely consult a competent attorney in your jurisdiction. The following is not legal advice, just general information to prepare you for meeting with your attorney for the first time.

What happens if we don't go to court?

Do you mean what would happen if neither you nor a lawyer make an appearance in court? In that case the court would probably enter a default judgment against you. This would be very bad for you, so don't blow it off.

Do we have to appear in court in person, or can this be handled through correspondence?

You may not necessarily have to appear yourselves, but your attorney will have to appear unless a settlement can be reached very quickly.

Is it legal to leave such a notice on someone's unattended apartment steps?

Depends on the jurisdiction, but in many places that kind of service of process is allowed. This is a question that your lawyer will be able to answer readily. Bear in mind that if the service was inadequate that it will only delay things briefly until the creditor serves you properly. That kind of technical issue is not a long term solution.

Can we settle out of court? Can monthly payments be made?

The great majority of civil cases end with a settlement rather than a verdict or judgment. The terms of repayment would be part of the settlement. It's possible for this case to be settled, but I don't know how these kinds of cases are usually disposed of.
posted by jedicus at 5:56 PM on March 1, 2010

I would contact Citibank and try to work something out.

Don't take any steps until you talk to a lawyer. Really. The answers to the rest of your questions all depend on the specific facts of your situation.
IANYL, this is not legal advice.
posted by sallybrown at 5:58 PM on March 1, 2010

I worked for a legal aid clinic that often handled these sorts of collections issues. Most often, these cases resolve by sitting down with the company; most likely the collections company here, and hammering out a payment plan, sometimes for the amount of the debt, but hopefully for less. If you do nothing, jedicus is right about the default judgment.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:59 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: If you're actually being sued, you just need a lawyer. That's all there is to it. This is beyond the "Okay, what do I do now?" phase, as what you need to do now is file a response, which you are not qualified to do.

Lawyer. Now.
posted by valkyryn at 6:06 PM on March 1, 2010

Did you get a notice that they *might* be suing, or did you actually get served with a lawsuit?

The first thing you do is document every single interaction you have with this company that claims they purchased your debt. Buy a little notebook and make sure you keep a log. Every phone call, every letter, everything.

Next, you need to establish whether they're actually entitled to collect on the debt. They need to prove this.

After that, work with them to repay the debt. Every situation is different, and you can certainly figure out a plan that will work for you.

The biggest thing though, is to read everything you can on on debt collection. There are lots of resources on the web and google can help you find them.
posted by ged at 6:17 PM on March 1, 2010

In case you're wondering how to find a lawyer, and what the process will be like once you find some lawyers, you should read this and this.
posted by rtha at 6:18 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: 1) IAL - I do litigation for a living.
2) every comment above is exactly right. GO TALK TO A LAWYER. Many State Bar Associations maintain interwebs or telephone based "law topic" sites. Check yours. Also, this issue is at the very low end of the legal complexity scale and luckily for you the underlying debt is only $6k (yes I know that's a lot but in the world of litigation it's not too much.) Thus, you need not hire mega-lawyer at super-firm and pay their rates. Find a small firm / solo / family practice type firm. They can help with this and it's a perfect case for a newish associate to cut his/her teeth on (while being supervised of course). Don't assume the cost of a lawyer is prohibitive until you know for sure.
3) Is your partner sure this is in fact his debt? Does he admit that he has/had a Citi credit card account and the balance was about that much? If so
A) If he agreed to pay then legally he owes the money and the card agreement certainly has provisions for recovery of attorney fees / costs from him in addition to the debt (they all do) [I'm not discussing the morality of paying or not paying credit card bills - just the legal side]
B) If he defaults (fails to respond) it will be bad.
C) If the debt is now owned by a debt collector who bought it from the credit card vendor they nearly always pay Citi (in this case) pennies on the dollar. Thus if the debt is $100 it's likely they paid no more than $10 - $20 for it. Thus if the matter were settled for a payment of $40, $50, etc. they'd still make a profit on the deal. All of which goes to say you can 'deal' and settle even if it's a certainty you owe every penny they are claiming. BUT
D) If you intend to deal or try to settle you must must must not not not talk to them yourself and under no no no circumstances should you ever give them your bank account number or debit card number "so we can make the monthly withdrawals that you are agreeing to." Trust these people as much as you'd trust a hungry crocodile while wearing meat underpants. Your lawyer does the negotiating. PERIOD
4) If, however, partner suspects it's not his debt, someone with a similar name, etc. Then you can demand proof of the debt - a copy of the actual application with partner's signature and an accounting of charges and payments which show how the debt was arrived at. But this again means you need a lawyer.
5) $6k is not a lot of money but if partner's finances are otherwise in sorry shape know that the bankruptcy laws are there for a reason. I don't do bankruptcy and so can't comment on the effect of the recent "screw the consumers, help our rich Wall Street Executive friends" amendments [that may not be the exact title] which made consumer debt discharges harder. A bankruptcy lawyer can analyze friend's circumstance in minutes and tell friend what options are out there.
6) This may be of marginal use - here's an article I wrote long ago about litigation - directed at a different topic but still probably a bit useful.
posted by BrooksCooper at 6:28 PM on March 1, 2010 [10 favorites]

and I screwed up the link. Here it is
posted by BrooksCooper at 6:29 PM on March 1, 2010

Go read CreditBoards.com/forums. That place is like AskMe except that the only topics are debt, credit scores, consumer protection laws, and what to do when you are sued by a creditor.

For example, this FAQ thread:

They also have a list of lawyers who understand consumer credit issues here:

Even if you plan to hire a lawyer and settle, go read those forums. You'll hear about all kinds of situations, e.g., dirty tricks pulled by collections agencies, etc., etc., many cautionary tales and many causes for hope.
posted by salvia at 7:21 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yes to what everyone above says.

One other suggestion: do you have a law school nearby? Many law schools have legal clinics that provide low-cost legal services in these kinds of cases. Here's the law clinic at our local university. Depending on how tight your finances are, there may also be a legal aid society that provides services to those who can't otherwise afford representation.

As BrooksCooper says, don't talk to the debt collectors until you've talked to a lawyer, and don't think you can't afford a lawyer until you've explored your options.
posted by fogovonslack at 7:21 PM on March 1, 2010

P.S. Contrary to some advice above, do not contact anyone and try to work anything out until you have a lawyer or have at least done a whole lot of reading on how all of this works.
posted by salvia at 7:23 PM on March 1, 2010


Without going into whether or not your partner actually owes the money, know 2 things:

1) Don't blow any of this off. Read everything, show up to everything, file whatever paperwork you need to file, and do it all on time. If you miss anything, you can get screwed. (This is a reason to get a lawyer.)

2) Even if you don't get a lawyer, call the other guys: they are always willing to deal; it's never too late cover the debt. Ultimately, they just want to get paid, and spending a lot of time and money on lawyer to go through court proceedings isn't really that beneficial to them.

There's a lot of good information out there that will guide you through the process of actually defending yourselves, and some in this thread, but just remember those 2 things throughout it all.
posted by jabberjaw at 7:24 PM on March 1, 2010

and I know we need to get a let a lawyer. . .

Ok, I realize that "get a lawyer" applies here, but so does the OP. I realize that many people on AskMefi, especially the attorneys, want to make sure that people realize that they need to get a lawyer, but the OP was quite clear about that from the start.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:02 PM on March 1, 2010

aaaand now I'm realizing that some of the "get a lawyer" advice was in response to Danf's advice. Nevermind. Carry on.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:03 PM on March 1, 2010

Are you getting actually sued or did you receive a summons to appear in court?

I received a summons to appear for the exact same reason (though the amount was smaller, roughly $1200) and I did not need to consult with an attorney. I merely showed up on the appointed day, was given a trial date, showed up on the trial date and worked out a payment plan with the lawyer representing the firm that purchased my debt. It was scary (from sheriff appearing at my doorstep to appearing before the judge) but when all was said and done, it was really no big deal.
posted by muxnaw at 8:20 PM on March 1, 2010

Oh also, they dropped the legal fees they said I'd be responsible for when I arranged the payment plan with the attorney.
posted by muxnaw at 8:20 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: Assuming you can't get to a lawyer within the next 30 days or however many days you have in your jurisdiction to file an Answer to their complaint (in CA it is 30 days) or assuming you visit a lawyer and decide it's too expensive, you can always file an Answer on your own "in pro per" using a pre-printed template form. They give away these forms at the courthouse or for a very low fee. In CA, for example, they are called Judicial Council Forms. All you do is fill in your information and check off boxes and assert any defenses you might have. Then file it with the required filing fee (you might qualify for a fee waiver).

Filing the answer in most jurisdictions will automatically cut off the plaintiff's right to file a default and/or default judgment against you and will buy you lots more time to negotiate or visit more lawyers/legal aid clinics. The court clerks really doesn't care how poorly written or random pleadings filed by in pro pers are. They're used to it. Just make it legible.

You never want to default on a complaint because to set it aside (in CA), you have to file a motion, which is annoying and expensive (in attorney fees).

When people ask for legal advice, they should really say what state they are in.
posted by KimikoPi at 12:29 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer, but when an action is commenced and a process server cannot find you at your residence (in some places, they have to try three times), they are allowed to nail and mail.

As mentioned above, do not default. Either appear pro se or get an attorney.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:06 AM on March 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice, everyone. This has been enormously helpful (at least in terms of giving me some steps to follow up on, which is way better of a position than I was in last night).

Yes, I should have mentioned what state I'm in -- California (so KimikoPi's advice applies).
posted by treepour at 9:20 AM on March 2, 2010

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