I failed at adulting. What should I do next in this situation?
April 28, 2016 7:28 AM   Subscribe

So, I screwed up and didn't pay a medical bill basically forever. I ignored statements and phone calls and eventually I got a letter from a law firm saying they'd been authorized to start a lawsuit. I immediately went into the medical system's website and paid all outstanding balances. But it didn't stop there...

A few days ago I got a business card from a process server taped to my apartment building door with a number to call them. I checked the county court website and indeed there is a suit filed against me in small claims court with a court date in late May.

What do I do now? As far as I can tell I've paid all my debt. Do I...

1. Call the process server? Do I have to, since I already know when the court date is?
2. Call the law firm? Send something in writing with the receipts from my payments? Are they likely to drop the suit then?
3. Call the original creditor (hospital system)? Or go there in person? (I'm concerned that doing this in writing is not enough time prior to court date.) Do they have the power to call off the suit?

Let's say this goes all the way to small claims court. What happens then? Do I need a lawyer? Do I show the judge that I've paid it off, the judge says yeah ok, case dismissed? Could I be punished further? The amount itself is no big deal ($650) but I don't want to pay it twice.

I know this is a very dumb terrible stupid thing to do, and I am very financially responsible in all other areas of my life, so no lectures please.
posted by AFABulous to Law & Government (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Lawyer up now, IMHO. Even if you've paid all the bills, the hospital/firm may try to go after you for the amount of filing the lawsuit.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:31 AM on April 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Call the law firm. Speak to the lawyer whose name appears on the court papers. They ought to be willing to settle, with your evidence of payment, and avoid the small claims trial. They may also ask for attorney fees and expenses. If these seem excessive, then you might want to consult with your own legal counsel as a double-check, or to negotiate.

You could call the hospital, and they might send a note to the lawyers about your payment. But the case is out of their hands, workflow-wise, since they've already been paid. They are busy and might not be a reliable partner in stopping the wheels of justice.

The process server has no role in this beyond serving the summons.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:44 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

It partially depends on whether the debt was sold to the law firm (in which case you paying the hospital has no effect on it) or if they were hired by the hospital.

Some information about debt collection

In any case, you're likely going to have to pay additional money (late fees, their lawyers' fees). Validate the debt to see who actually owns it now and then contact that party and see what they will settle for.
posted by Candleman at 8:00 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you haven't had experience with this kind of thing before, it can feel really scary and out of control, but it isn't. JimN2TAW's advice is correct. You don't need a lawyer. Just call the law firm. They don't want to go to court. It's not a big deal. Call them and get information. A call isn't going to obligate you to anything. You've already acknowledged the debt by paying it. It's possible, though, that the hospital sold the debt to a collection agency and they are the one's who have retained the lawyer. In that case, things may be more complicated, but it isn't Midnight Express complicated.
posted by orsonet at 8:01 AM on April 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, read about pay for delete and see if they're willing to do it. If you need to buy a house or anything that relies on credit in the next few years, paying extra to make it go away entirely will pay off.
posted by Candleman at 8:03 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

You'll have to go through the lawyer/law firm now that the suit is initiated. But collections/debt is one of the areas pretty well handled by legal aid (self-help resources if you're outside their income guidelines for representation). You should be able to find a good legal aid self-help guide to the sort of letter you should send the lawyer, including what documents to send copies of.

In any event, do not fail to show up for your court date, regardless of whether you have sorted things out with the law firm by then, unless and until you have a copy of a court order dismissing the case; even if you don't have your own attorney; even if you don't know what you're doing.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:05 AM on April 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It's possible, though, that the hospital sold the debt to a collection agency and they are the one's who have retained the lawyer.

The letter says "if the original creditor is different than the current creditor, Blah Blah Health Care, Blah Blah Medical Center and Blah Blah Health Care Metro d/b/a Blah Blah Medical Group, we will furnish that information to you." The blah blah etc. is who I owed money to, so it looks like it has not been sold.

Anyone have any ideas about what the legal fees might be? $200? $3000? I have literally no idea. Reminder that the original debt was $650.
posted by AFABulous at 8:20 AM on April 28, 2016

I don't know where you are located, but Small Claims Court is generally a court of limited jurisdiction. Meaning that they can't go crazy with claims. (For example, in California the maximum limit is $10,000, with some restrictions based on the Plaintiff.) They can't claim more money than the Court's jurisdiction, so that would be the maximum amount.

Your agreement with the hospital probably included an "attorney's fees" provision, which means that they can charge you for legal fees they incur. In my experience, however, Courts do not like to allow $thousands for a debt that is $hundreds. It's not fair, and Courts recognize that. Making things easy on them (don't dodge service, respond promptly to litigation papers) means that you are not driving up the fees, either.

Small claims court is, essentially, Judge Judy (or Wapner, depending on your age). Many times, the court turns to the Plaintiff and asks what happened, why are we here? After the Plaintiff explains, the Judge turns to you and asks for your explanation. If your response is "I paid Blah Blah $650, the amount of the debt, on Date, after I realized the severity of the issue, but before I learned of the lawsuit," the Judge will probably take that into consideration. Ask for mercy, and explain any reasons (not excuses) that you didn't pay, or why a judgment would be a burden to you (low income, supporting kids/spouse/parents). Do NOT lie.

(All this said, your jurisdiction may vary. I have practiced in Texas and California, and that is how small claims court was there. Your jurisdiction may treat small claims court very differently.)

IAAL, IANYL, TINLA. Don't freak out. It will be okay. Talk to the law firm. But don't worry about the trial.
posted by China Grover at 8:34 AM on April 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's hard to advise you without knowing where you're located and also without knowing how much they are going after you for (since that affects how much effort it's worth putting into defense). You weren't served properly (i.e., given proper notice of the lawsuit), but it's possible your jurisdiction has relaxed service rules for small claims court. If you're in New York, get in touch with CLARO. They run clinics where lawyers can assist you in filling out the appropriate paperwork. In other states, try googling for legal aid. You're not going to get a free lawyer in a sub-$1000 civil case, but they should be able to direct you to whatever resources are out there.

Unfortunately, you can't necessarily rely on the judge imposing a fair resolution. If the collector hands him/her an account statement with "COLLECTION FEES: $9273," the judge may just accept that. It's an ongoing problem, but I will skip the rant about it. That's why I would try to get some legal advice in advance rather than just showing up, which in another context might work out fine.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on April 28, 2016

P.S. Don't let them make you feel like a bad, unworthy person. It's part of their strategy, to make you meekly accept whatever claims they may make. Corporations fail to pay debts all the time, and no one moves to cast them out of society. You're in breach of contract. Your life may be a little disorganized, but you didn't kill anyone.
posted by praemunire at 9:44 AM on April 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

And get a REAL debt lawyer! I have a friend who got a "debt assistance professional" who happened to have a law degree -- not the same thing at all. It was a total waste of money.
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:04 PM on April 28, 2016

If you have been served, you HAVE to show up in court. I once did the same thing as you, and called the company to get paid up, and thought things were fine.

If you don't show up they will rule against you, which could mean a lien, garnished wages or other punishments.

All you have to do is show up and explain that the bill has been handled, and it'll likely be dismissed in court. (not a lawyer)

OTOH, the punishments may help you get things together. I know I cleaned up my debts and budgets after my run in.
posted by dreamling at 5:51 PM on April 28, 2016

Let's say this goes all the way to small claims court. What happens then? Do I need a lawyer? Do I show the judge that I've paid it off, the judge says yeah ok, case dismissed?

I've attended such cases for my employer, and I can't imagine how it would even get to trial if you already paid off the debt. You did what the other side wanted- you paid the bill. The debt collector might not know that yet because you paid directly to the medical system. Send them the receipt and it should be over.

That said, having attended such cases, they're not as scary as you think. Some judges are highly sympathetic to people with medical debit and will ensure you don't get screwed.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:23 PM on April 28, 2016

Some information and some misinformation above.

1. They have not sold the debt to a law firm. That never happens. They undoubtedly hired a collection agency which then retained the law firm - after you ignored numerous communications from the agency.

2. The collection agency's communications no doubt were very clear: pay us now, do not pay the original creditor.

3. In most states, small claims court is the place where you don't need a lawyer and cannot use a lawyer. Hence the proceedings are very informal.

4. By all means call the lawyer who filed the suit. (You will likely talk to a staffer.) They handle this stuff all the time. Compromise payments and/or payments over time are very common.

5. Call the hospital and ask them to return the payment you made. If they don't, that should be a credit to the amount you owe.
posted by megatherium at 4:15 AM on April 29, 2016

Response by poster: Okay, but again, the letter from the law firm referenced the original creditors, not a collection firm. I went into the creditors website and all the charges were still there. I printed out PDFs of the receipts showing I had paid everything (even the bill I just received yesterday!). I mean, is it possible they're pulling some sort of bait and switch and HAHA, sucker, you actually owe money to Scam Collections LLC.?

My plan is to call the law firm, send them copies of the receipts if requested, and ask them to drop the suit in writing. I will show up in court no matter what happens, just in case.

I have not received anything in writing from any collection agency. It is possible they called me; I don't answer any calls from blocked numbers and their messages are so vague that I've never called any back. (I have some other stuff in collections from long ago so who knows what original creditor the collection agency bought the debt from.)

Thanks for everyone's help. I'm much calmer now and I've learned a valuable lesson.
posted by AFABulous at 6:56 AM on April 29, 2016

If the lawsuit lists the Medical Center and not a Collections Agency, don't worry about a collections agency. Your plan is a solid one. (Except, if you get official notice that your case has settled, it's a waste of your time to show up in court.)
posted by ohisee at 12:39 AM on April 30, 2016

Response by poster: New twist: I called the law firm and they said the dates of service that they are collecting for were in 2012 and 2013. The stuff I mentioned paying above is from 2015 and 2016. I don't know if I paid the earlier ones and I'm not sure if I could find the receipts (I got divorced in 2014 and moved twice.) I assume the statute of limitations for collections is still valid.

So, assuming I cannot find proof that I paid them - and it is very likely that I have not - what is the next step?
posted by AFABulous at 12:13 PM on May 2, 2016

I am not your lawyer. This is not legal advice. This is, like the comments preceding it, simply the conversational chitchat of another person who, like you, paid five bucks to post comments here on MetaFilter.

Generally speaking, small-claims collection practice goes like this:
  1. Try to get payment from the debtor by sending letters and making calls.
  2. If the debtor doesn't respond, then file suit.
  3. If the debtor doesn't pay, then get judgment.
  4. If the debtor doesn't pay and doesn't qualify for some hardship consideration, then enforce the judgment.
That's the model. If you understand that, it's easier to see your options.

For amusement, let's take a hypothetical guy named Bill, who's in a situation similar to yours. Bill is being sued for an alleged debt. He is pretty sure, but not certain, that he owes the debt. His income isn't exempt, he doesn't want to try to dodge the debt on a technicality, and he can afford to make payments. (See, we're making assumptions that may or may not apply to you. This is a legitimate hypothetical, not just a flimsy way to give legal advice while pretending not to be giving legal advice.)

What might Bill do? Well, maybe Bill wants to be certain that he does owe the debt before paying it. So Bill might contact the creditor's attorney and ask for additional information about the debt. If the creditor intends to prove its claim in small-claims court, then the creditor must have some evidence to present. Bill might ask to review that evidence prior to the hearing date. If the hearing date is near, then Bill might ask the creditor to "continue" (delay) the hearing to a later date—say, thirty or ninety days—so he can review the evidence. Or maybe Bill will present that request to the court, to please "continue" (delay) the hearing so he can review the evidence before trial.

The nature of small-claims court is that you aren't expected to have an opportunity to review evidence prior to trial. However, that doesn't mean a court won't grant an opportunity upon request.

Alternatively, maybe Bill is 96 percent sure that he owes the debt, and that's enough for him, and he doesn't want to waste one or two days of his life attending court. Bill decides that, for him personally, the most economical option is to pay the debt. He might contact the creditor's attorney and offer a settlement—say, $700 cash, on his debt of $1,000 plus chargeable court costs and attorney fees—or he might offer a payment plan.

In either case, Bill might want to avoid having a judgment entered against him, so he might condition his offer of payment upon the creditor agreeing to dismiss the small-claims action "with prejudice" (it can't be sued again) upon receipt of his payment. Depending on the length of a payment plan, maybe this would require "continuing" (delaying) the hearing for a number of months. The creditor gets its payment, Bill doesn't have a judgment against him, everybody wins.

This is Bill's situation. It probably isn't yours. I'm using the hypothetical not to advise you of options—because I'm probably not licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction, and I have no idea which options are realistically available to you—but simply to paint a conversational picture of how collection claims sometimes proceed, because it seemed relevant to the thread and because it might be interesting to you. If you have questions, please consult a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. Your state or county bar association can provide a referral, and the courthouse may be able to point you toward free legal-aid resources. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 5:46 PM on May 22, 2016

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