Getting sued on a defaulted student loan can be overwhelming and terrifying. In my experience, most people who are brought to court by student loan debt collectors have never been sued before, so they don’t know what to expect. And dealing with debt collectors, attorneys, court personnel, and judges can be intimidating and embarrassing.
However, being sued does not mean all is lost. The initiation of a lawsuit is the beginning of a legal process, not the end. You have rights, and you may have some options. The lawsuit could end in any number of ways ranging from a dismissal of the case, to some sort of negotiated agreement, to a judgment against you. While no one (not even me) could tell you with any certainty what the final outcome of a student loan lawsuit may be, I can tell you that doing certain things may ensure that you lose.
Not Responding to the Lawsuit
When a lawsuit is initiated, the student loan lender files something called a “Complaint,” which is a formal legal document explaining the lender’s allegations and why they are suing you. In order to defend yourself against the lawsuit and have your day in court, you must respond to that lawsuit through another formal legal document (usually either an “Answer” or a “Motion to Dismiss”), and there are strict deadlines that govern when you must do this.
Failure to properly respond to the lawsuit can result in you automatically losing. That’s because without a formal response on record, the student loan lender can ask the court for a judgment against you on the basis that their Complaint is uncontested. Basically, they get to say that because you didn’t respond, the court should conclude that everything they said in their Complaint is true and accurate, and they are entitled to a judgment as a result. If the court endorses their request, you lose.
Not Raising Defenses
Defenses (usually known as “Affirmative Defenses”) are legal reasons why you should not have to pay what the student loan lender is saying you owe. You may have valid legal defenses and not even realize it. For example, you can raise defenses based on how long the lender took to file a lawsuit against you. Or you might be able to raise defenses if your debt was sold several times to multiple companies, or the balance is far higher than it should be. There might be legitimate defenses if the loan isn’t even yours, or if your signature was forged, or if you never defaulted on the student loan in the first place and it went into collections because of a servicer error.
If you prevail on one or more of your defenses, you may be able to get the case dismissed. At a minimum, raising defenses allows you to push back against the student loan lender’s allegations, which can give you leverage. But you must properly raise the defenses in order to be able to use them. If you don’t raise them and you find out later in the case that there’s a valid reason why you don’t owe the lender any money, it may be too late.
Agreeing to Immediately Make Payments
Sometimes when a lawsuit is initiated, debt collectors will pressure frightened student loan borrowers into making payments immediately. However, this will not stop the lawsuit from continuing, unless there is a specific written agreement saying so. And making payments may severely undercut – or even invalidate – some of your legitimate defenses. So be careful, don’t allow yourself to be pressured.
Saying Too Much to a Debt Collector
Similarly to the above, a debt collector that’s suing you may pressure you to divulge details about your life during communications. Sometimes this is done through intimidation and pressure tactics; other times this is accomplished through more subtle methods, such as polite requests or seemingly friendly interactions.
Regardless of the specific tactics, you need to remember that the debt collector or attorney is representing the interests of the student loan creditor, not you. They are not on your side. That doesn’t mean they are all bad people out to get you; it just means that they are not looking out for your interests – that’s not their job. And anything that you say to a debt collector can be used for debt collection purposes. So be careful, because whatever you tell them can potentially harm you during the lawsuit.
Not Showing Up to a Court Date
Court hearings are not voluntary – you have to be there. During the course of your lawsuit, you may have several scheduled hearings. Sometimes these hearings are simple scheduling conferences or status hearings so that the judge can “check in” and see where things are in the case. Other times, a hearing is scheduled so the court can rule on a specific motion or request, or potentially even the merits of your case. Regardless of the reason for a court date, you have to go. If you don’t, a “default” may be entered against you, and that can allow the student loan lender to ask that the case be decided in their favor. You don’t want that to happen.
If you have a scheduling conflict for a court date, you can either try working with the attorney or debt collector to change the date, or you can file a formal request with the court to change the date (this is usually called a “continuance”). You can ask the court clerk’s office for guidance if you don’t have counsel.
Ignoring Written Requests From the Debt Collector
Sometimes, the student loan creditor (via the debt collector law firm representing the creditor) will file a formal motion with the court. Or, you may be sent requests pursuant to “discovery,” such as a list of questions that must be answered, or documents that have to be produced. If you don’t respond to the motion or the discovery requests, it could undercut your defenses or potentially provide the student loan creditor with a basis for requesting a judgment against you. If you’re not sure whether you have to respond to a particular document, you should seek legal counsel or contact the court clerk’s office for guidance. That leads us to…
Not Obtaining Legal Counsel
Are you required to get an attorney to represent you in a student loan lawsuit? Absolutely not. No one is required to get a lawyer, and you can certainly proceed on your own (this is called “pro se”). But having an attorney help you can be enormously beneficial – whether it’s a simple consultation for legal guidance, or full representation in court. There are tons of rules that govern how lawsuits work, and reams of other statutes, regulations, and legal precedent that can determine your defenses and potential paths to a favorable outcome. Having someone on your team can be incredibly helpful while you’re going through this.
If you’re looking to hire a private attorney, look for someone who is a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a national bar association of consumer rights attorneys. If you can’t afford private counsel, consider reaching out to your local legal services organization to see if you qualify for free legal assistance.