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Are you one of the 34 million Americans who have been making late credit card payments? Among the 18 million who have missed payments entirely? Is a credit card company or collection agency suing you over a credit card debt? If so, don't despair; there is hope and help at the Sacramento County Public Law Library!
If you have received a summons and a complaint from a credit card company or collection agency, the law typically requires you to respond within 30 days (California Code of Civil Procedure § 412.20(a) (3)). An "Answer" is your opportunity to admit or deny the specific allegations brought against you in the complaint. Any statements in the complaint that are not denied will be taken as true for the purposes of that case (California Code of Civil Procedure § 431.30(b)(1)). If you have certain "affirmative defenses" to the company's claim, such as the statute of limitations has run (the credit card company has four years from the date the written contract is broken to sue you for the debt), or "discharge by bankruptcy," you must state these defenses in your Answer, or you may be prohibited from raising them later (California Code of Civil Procedure § 337). In addition, you are required to "serve" the Answer on the credit card company or collection agency, complete a "Proof of Service," and file both with the proper Court.
Scary? Confusing? It is to most people. But the Sacramento County Public Law Library's Civil Self-Help Center has an "Answer to Breach of Contract Workshop" every Tuesday through Friday morning in which an experienced paralegal walks you through the entire process of completing the forms used to answer your breach of contract/collection case. Responding to a lawsuit is the first step in defending your case, and preventing a default judgment against you. A default judgment, like any other judgment, could result in the garnishing of your paycheck, the placement of a lien on your house or car, or the levying your bank accounts.
To attend the Workshop, please arrive at the Sacramento County Public Law Library shortly before 8:30 a.m. Appointments for the Workshop and other Self-Help Center services are assigned in a random order determined by a lottery held at 8:30 a.m. each Monday through Friday.
Please expect the workshop to last until noon, and plan your parking (and child care, if needed) so that you do not have to leave the Workshop to feed the parking meter. Directions and parking and transit information are available at www.saclaw.org.
In some instances, your response does not have to be an Answer. You may wish to consider an additional or another form of response; for example, a "Motion for Change of Venue," if the credit card company filed in the wrong court; a "Motion to Quash Service of Summons," if you were served improperly; or a "Demurrer" or "Motion to Strike," if there are legal defects in the complaint. If you have a claim that arises out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of events as the credit card company or collection agency's suit, you must file a "Cross-Complaint" with your Answer, or else give up the claim forever.
If the complaint is not verified, that is, if the attorney or other representative of the credit card company or collection agency has not declared under penalty of perjury that everything is true and correct at the end of the complaint, you may "generally deny" all allegations in the Complaint in your Answer, or you may use a very simple form of response called a "General Denial," which allows you to deny every allegation in the complaint with one sentence. In most instances, you may not generally deny a verified complaint.
For full explanations of all your responsive options, you will need to visit the Sacramento County Public Law Library to do more in-depth research. The Santa Clara Superior Court, however, provides some basic information on your options at http://www.scscourt.org/self_help/civil/lawsuits/defendant.shtml.
You should address the complaint immediately, since it may take time to research and prepare your response. Failure to respond within 30 days (if the 30th day falls on a weekend or court holiday, you have until the close of the next business day to file your response, California Rules of Court 1.110) may result in a default being entered against you. If a default is entered due to your failure to file a response on time, you will not be able to defend the case unless you get the default set aside. You may have to bring a Motion, which is much more complicated than an Answer, and that Motion may not be granted by the court. Therefore, it is important that you not wait until the last minute to respond to a complaint.
If you want to file a standard Answer or a General Denial, you may be able to use a fill-in-the-blanks form. The Judicial Council of California has created forms to answer the most common types of breach of contract cases. These forms are available online in a fillable format:
Answer-Contract (Form PLD-C-010)
General Denial (Form PLD-050)
These forms are available on the internet at http://www.courts.ca.gov/forms/, on the Law Library's public computers using USCourtForms.com or several other subscription databases, or may be photocopied from a book in the Library.
If these forms do not fit your needs, you may need to type up your own Answer on pleading paper. You can find samples of other types of Answers at the Law Library. A very good book, "Win Your Lawsuit: A Judges Guide to Representing Yourself in California," is put out by Nolo Press, a publisher of "plain-English" self-help legal books. The book has a chapter devoted to lawsuits from the defendant's point of view. This chapter describes your options for responses and gives guidance for completing the forms. "Win Your Lawsuit" is available at the Sacramento County Public Law Library, many large public libraries, and it is for sale in most large bookstores and directly from the publisher at www.nolo.com.
By Kelly Browne, Assistant Director for Public Services
revised 7/12 mpj
Links for "Responding to a Credit Card Case"
Nolo Press Legal Dictionary
Findlaw's California Code of Civil Procedure
Civil Self-Help Center
Answer to Breach of Contract Workshop
Santa Clara County Superior Court's Self-Service Center
Judicial Council's Official Court Forms