If you’ve been following our student series, you’ve learned a bit about the math involved in filling out bankruptcy forms, the complicated world of wildcard exemptions, and the reality of Small Claims Court for many defendants. Students are tackling all of these issues as part of student teams working on the Lab’s Financial Distress Research Project, creating self-help materials and legal briefs for small claims cases and bankruptcy filings.
This week, Lauren Mercer brings us back to Small Claims Court to talk about how defendants should ask for, and then evaluate, plaintiffs’ evidence.
Do I Know You?
While preparing materials to help pro se litigants defend themselves in small claims court, I was struck by the extent to which not knowing what questions to ask can hurt your ability to advocate for yourself in court. That’s why I like this cartoon so much. The accompanying text in our self-help materials explains that if a stranger approached you in the street and told you to pay them $1,000, you wouldn’t do that. You’d demand to know who they were and why they thought that you owed them $1,000. That result should be obvious to the reader. The power of the metaphor is that it goes on to explain that you should demand the same in court.
In many credit card debt collection cases, the plaintiff is a third-party company who purchased the defendant’s debt. These debt buyers sue individuals who have often never heard of their company before. During a day I spent observing small claims court, I did not hear any of the defendants ask questions to clarify that the parties suing them actually owned their accounts. The debt buyers’ attorney typically had a statement for the defendant’s account, but they didn’t show the defendants anything to prove that they owned their debt. It’s easy to understand why people in this situation don’t ask for proof of ownership; court proceedings are foreign to many and cloaked with a veneer of legitimacy. Upon seeing their names and the last four digits of their account numbers typed into documents filed with a court, people likely assume that the right party is suing them. But it might not be the right party, and even if it is, the plaintiff carries the burden of proving ownership of the debt. In our team’s survey of Connecticut small claims court filings, we found that debt buyers frequently lacked sufficient documentation to prove ownership.
Because pro se litigants may find themselves at a disadvantage in the judicial process by virtue of not knowing what questions to ask, the approach of analogizing the plaintiff to a stranger on the street is powerful and intuitive. Defendants should ask themselves, “If someone came up to me and asked for whatever the plaintiff is seeking in this lawsuit, what would I insist that they show me before I would give it to them?” Examining the plaintiff’s evidence with that frame of mind is a solid first step toward asking the right questions in court.
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