If you get sued by a creditor looking to collect a debt, you’ll be notified of the lawsuit with a summons and complaint. In New York, you have 20 or 30 days to respond to (answer) the debt collection lawsuit. The time frame depends on how you were served notice of the lawsuit. In your response (answer) you’ll want to address each issue listed in the complaint and assert your affirmative defenses and counterclaims. Then, file your answer with the court and send the plaintiff a copy. This article walks you through the process and potential defenses.
Written by Curtis Lee, JD.
Updated August 21, 2023
If you have a debt that goes unpaid long enough, there’s a fair chance you could find yourself in a debt collection lawsuit. This can be scary and intimidating, but it’s important to respond to the lawsuit. If you don’t, you could risk losing by default, which can lead to wage garnishment or other serious collections measures.
You may think there’s no point in fighting the lawsuit, but you could have legal defenses you’re not aware of. Bottom line: You can win that debt collection lawsuit. This article explains what you can do when facing a debt collection lawsuit in New York, how to respond to a legal complaint, and what common defenses may apply to your case.
How Do Debt Collection Lawsuits Work in New York?
If you owe money to a person or company, they have the legal right to take steps to collect the debt. Debt collectors can’t violate federal laws like the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) or New York state collection laws when trying to collect a debt from you, but they can use phone calls and letters to contact you and can also take legal action against you by filing a lawsuit.
A debt collection lawsuit begins when a creditor or debt collector files a complaint with the court. The plaintiff is the person or company suing you. Sometimes, the plaintiff is the original creditor — the entity that first gave you the loan or credit. But often, original creditors sell their unpaid debts to debt buyers or debt collection agencies.
The complaint is a legal document that details:
The allegations against you
Facts to support those allegations
Laws or legal principles that give the plaintiff the right to sue you
The remedies the plaintiff seeks from the court
How Do You Know You’re Being Sued for a Debt in New York?
When you get sued for debt in New York, the plaintiff must give you a copy of the summons and complaint. One of these documents should say “Consumer Credit Transaction” somewhere on the page. This indicates that the lawsuit arises out of a transaction involving consumer debts, like bank loans, credit cards, and medical bills.
The summons and complaint can be delivered to you (served) in three ways:
Hand-delivered to you personally
Hand-delivered to a suitable person at your residence and a copy is mailed to you
Left at a reasonable place where you’re likely to find them and a copy is mailed to you
Once you’ve received notice of a debt lawsuit against you, the clock starts ticking for you to respond. Responding to the lawsuit is called answering the case or filing an answer.
How Long Do You Have To Answer a Complaint in a New York Debt Collection Lawsuit?
When you (the defendant) receive the court papers, you’ll have either 10, 20, or 30 days to respond.
If the summons and complaint were hand-delivered to you and the case was filed in a City Court outside New York City, you must respond within 10 days.
If the summons and complaint were hand-delivered to you and the case was not filed in a City Court that’s outside of New York City, you must respond within 20 days.
If the summons and complaint were mailed to you, hand-delivered to someone other than you, or left for you to find, you must respond within 30 days.
Responding means you (or your attorney, if you have one) file an answer to the complaint with the clerk in the court where the complaint was filed. Your answer should address all the facts and allegations in the complaint and whether you admit or deny each one.
Your answer is also your chance to raise any defenses — other information or reasons that the plaintiff should not win their case against you.
If possible, you should respond to the summons in writing. In some New York courts, you can also give your answer verbally, in person, to the court clerk.
You don’t have to be a lawyer to respond to a debt collection lawsuit. Everyday people can and do defend themselves in court against debt collectors. If you’re a New York resident, you can also get free, limited legal advice on debt collection from our AJM Advocates.
What Happens if You Don’t Answer the Complaint in a New York Debt Collection Lawsuit?
It’s very important to answer the complaint! If you don’t, you’re likely handing the debt collector an easy win and giving them access to serious collections measures like wage garnishment, a bank account levy, or even personal property seizure.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or want to ignore the lawsuit. You might be thinking that if you don’t respond to it, the plaintiff can’t win.
But the opposite is true: The court may issue a default judgment against you. If this happens, the plaintiff wins, and the court judgment will order you to pay back the entire debt. The court order may also require you to pay additional costs, such as legal expenses and interest.
Given what could happen when a court enters a default judgment against you, it’s normally best to answer the summons.
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How To Answer the Summons for a Debt Collection Case
In New York debt collection lawsuits, you can answer the summons in writing or in person, if the court allows. Either way is fine, so long as you provide the answer within the legal time frame (10-30 days, depending on how you were served). Remember,the court clerk can provide general information but not legal advice.
How To Answer a Summons in Person in New York
To answer in person, go to the appropriate New York court and find the clerk. If you’re in New York City, you can find a list of court locations from the New York City Civil Court. The New York State Court System lists court contact information for courts outside NYC.
When you find the clerk, verify that they allow defendants in debt collection cases to file an answer in person. They’ll direct you to the Consumer Credit Transaction Answer In Person form. This form will have a list of defenses that could apply to your case.
After you fill it out, you’ll get a copy and you’ll need to send a copy to the plaintiff, too. Sometimes the court does this on your behalf. Ask the clerk if the court will send the copy or if you need to.
Keep your copy somewhere safe. You’ll need it when you defend your case before the judge.
How To Answer a Summons in Writing
If you choose to answer the summons in writing, you can use your own form or a free Civil Court form. A sample copy of this form is available for NYC cases from NYCourts.gov. If your case isn’t in New York City, you can look at this form to get a rough idea of what your local form might look like.
After you complete the form, you’ll give it to the clerk at the courthouse where the plaintiff filed the complaint. You’ll get a copy and you’ll need to send a copy to the plaintiff. Ask the clerk if the court will send the plaintiff a copy or if you need to do it yourself.
If the court will not send the plaintiff a copy of your answer, then someone else (not you) who is at least 18 years old must mail a copy to the plaintiff. The person who mails your answer must then complete a form called an Affidavit of Service by Mail. This is usually available in the clerk’s office or on the court’s website.
You can file this affidavit with the court clerk or bring it with you to your court date. Note that if the plaintiff has hired a lawyer, you should send your answer to the lawyer instead of the plaintiff.
If the complaint you received has a Verification (notarized signature) at the end, then your answer must also be verified, or notarized. In this case, before the court files your answer, you’ll need to verify it in front of a notary public or court clerk. This is your way of attesting that the information you put on the form is true to the best of your knowledge.
Remember to save a copy of the answer for yourself. You’ll need this when you present your case before the judge.
What Are the Most Common Defenses in Debt Collection Lawsuits in New York?
When you file your answer, you’ll have to list your defense(s). Your defense is simply the reason why you think the plaintiff shouldn’t win the case. The New York Court website includes a list of common defenses.
For example, you could use general denial as a defense if you believe the information in the plaintiff’s complaint is incorrect or you don’t know if the information in the plaintiff’s complaint is correct.
Keep in mind that two or more defenses could apply to your case. Also, when you present your defense(s) before the judge, bring evidence to support your claims. Most likely, this will take the form of documents.
Here are some other common defenses and what they mean.
Defenses Related to the Alleged Collection Account
If the plaintiff is trying to collect on a debt you don’t owe or collect the wrong amount on a debt you do owe, you can use this as a defense.
Here are some specific examples:
I don’t owe the plaintiff money.
I’m the victim of mistaken identity or identity theft.
I’ve paid off the debt the plaintiff is trying to collect.
The amount the plaintiff is suing me for is wrong.
The contract is unfair. If the plaintiff is relying on a contract to recover a debt from you, but the terms of that contract are “shockingly” unfair, the contract could be unconscionable, meaning the plaintiff usually can’t enforce it.
The amount the plaintiff is trying to collect is much more than what I owe, even after accounting for litigation costs, court fees, and interest. In some circumstances, you can claim that collecting this amount would be unjust enrichment for the plaintiff.
Defenses Related to the Plaintiff’s Ability To Collect the Debt
Debt collectors in New York generally only have three years to try to collect on a debt. They must also be able to prove they own the debt.
Here are examples of defenses related to the plaintiff’s ability to collect the debt:
The statute of limitations has run. In New York state, a plaintiff seeking to sue you to recover a consumer credit transaction debt has three years to bring their lawsuit. This clock begins on either the date you default on the debt or the date of the last transaction on the account, depending on the legal theory the plaintiff chooses to pursue.
The plaintiff lacks standing to sue because they don’t own the debt. If you assert this defense, the plaintiff will need to show how and why they’re the legal owner of the debt.
The plaintiff lacks proper authority to collect the debt. Debt collectors must have a license to collect debts in certain localities, like Buffalo and New York City.
The debt can’t be collected because it was discharged in bankruptcy.
Defenses Related to Service or Technical Requirements
There are a lot of legal rules and procedures that protect New Yorkers from unfair collection practices. If the plaintiff hasn’t followed the rules correctly, you can use this as a defense in the debt collection lawsuit. For example:
No service of summons is a procedural defense that states that you never got a copy of the summons from the plaintiff.
Improper service means the plaintiff didn’t properly serve you with the complaint or summons.
The complaint is missing a debt collection license number. This defense will usually only apply to cases in NYC where plaintiffs are required to put their license number in the complaint.
There are other types of defenses that are less common but may apply to your case. For example, you may have protected income like Social Security benefits.
You aren’t limited to the defenses listed above. If you have any reason why you don’t think you owe the plaintiff money, write it down in your answer before you file it. Finally, you could have a counterclaim against the plaintiff. This is different from a defense, and it applies when you think the plaintiff owes you money.
What Happens When the Debt Collection Case Comes Before the Judge?
After you’ve filed your answer, the court clerk will schedule a court date for you and the plaintiff to have your case heard before a judge. Sometimes you’ll get this date right after you file your answer, but the clerk might give you the date later by sending a notice by mail. The court will choose a date at least five days after you filed your answer. But you can expect the court date to be relatively soon after you file your answer.