District Justice or Magistrate Lawsuits
Many collection agency lawsuits are filed at the magistrate or district justice level. (District Justice and Magistrate are the same thing, where cases that are $12,000 or less can be filed). Collection agencies file claims at the Magistrate level as a cost savings measure. Its a little bit cheaper to file the lawsuit there, and, they often do not have to send an attorney to the hearing.
The rules/procedure at the DJ are as follows. The Plaintiff collection agency files the lawsuit. The defendant (you) is notified of the lawsuit and hearing date, which is usually about a month after the lawsuit is filed. The defendant has an obligation to notify the DJ that he/she will attend the hearing and defend the lawsuit. If the defendant does not notify the court, a hearing will not take place. What will happen is that the collection agency will automatically win. A District Justice judgment will be entered against the defendant, and the defendant will have thirty (30) days to file an appeal.
If the defendant advises the court that he/she is going to defend at the hearing, the court will notify the collection agency that a hearing will take place. In my estimation there is a 10% chance that the collection agency will not show up at the hearing. If they do not show up, then the defendant should win.
If the collection agency does show up, it is very unlikely that they will have all of the necessary documentation regarding your credit account, and that should be the basis of your defense. The best advice that I can give is to have a knowledgeable consumer attorney attend the hearing on your behalf. If you attend, then the collection attorney can ask you questions about the alleged account and use your testimony against you. If you send a consumer attorney in your place, (you will not go to the hearing) they generally have a very difficult time in proving the case against you. In fact, I have only lost on a collection agency case at the magistrate level one time, and I am certain the the District Justice involved was very good friends with the Collection Agency Attorney (we won the case handily on appeal), though that cannot be any type of guarantee as to future success in your specific case. UPDATE, we lost a second case recently, towards the end of 2011... and two more in 2012... still excellent considering that we handle approximately 20 District Justice hearings per month.
If you have a credit card company or a collection agency attempting to collect a debt from you at the magistrate or district justice, please contact my office at 412-823-8003 or send an email to Attorney Greg Artim