If a debt collector brings a lawsuit against you in Ohio, you’ll get a summons and complaint. These documents inform you of who is suing you and which courthouse is dealing with your case. It’s important to reply by the deadline so you don’t lose the case. Replying requires you to fill out an answer form and certificate of service. You’ll file both of these with the court and send a copy of the answer form to the opposing party. The court will follow up with information about a potential hearing, arbitration, or mediation to resolve the case.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated February 9, 2024
How Do Debt Collection Lawsuits in Ohio Work?
If you’ve been contacted numerous times by a debt collection agency and haven’t resolved the debt, the debt collector may bring legal action against you. In other words, they may file a debt collection lawsuit. If they win the lawsuit, the debt collector can get access to your paycheck or bank account with a wage garnishment order or bank levy. They may also be able to place a lien on your property.
This is why it’s important to respond to the debt lawsuit! If you ignore it, it won’t go away. Most likely, the debt collector will win without having to fight.
Which Court Is in Charge of Your Case?
Debt collection cases are civil lawsuits. Not paying a debt isn’t a criminal offense. Most Ohio debt collection cases are filed and heard in municipal or county court. If you’re being sued for $6,000 or less, your case will be heard in the small claims division of the court. Small claims court is less formal and has fewer rules than other civil courts.
If the lawsuit doesn’t meet the requirements for small claims, it may be heard in a county or municipal civil court or a court of common pleas. These cases must be for an amount of $15,000 or less.
Most frequently, you’ll know you’re being sued when you receive formal notice by mail or from a process server (a person hired to serve the court papers). This formal notice includes a summons and complaint. (Though it's rarely used, you can also be notified via publication.)
What Is a Summons and Complaint?
The summons is a formal notice that you’re being sued. It will contain the name of the party bringing the lawsuit and their address. If you’re being sued by a debt collector or creditor, they’ll most likely hire an attorney to act on their behalf. You’ll need this contact information later.
The summons will also list the name and address of the courthouse where the case is being filed. Finally, it will tell you the date you need to respond to the lawsuit by.
A complaint accompanies a summons. It lists — usually in numbered paragraphs — the debt collector’s claims against you and how much money they claim you owe. The complaint may also indicate that the party suing you (the plaintiff) is seeking a money judgment from the court to reclaim the debt owed plus court fees, legal fees, and potentially additional interest. A money judgment is a binding court order.
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How To Answer an Ohio Court Summons for Debt
Answering a court summons in Ohio is as simple as filling out a few forms and delivering them to the court and the opposing party. Specifically, you’ll need to file an answer form within 28 days of receiving the summons and then complete a certificate of service. Here’s a more in-depth look at the process.
File an Answer to the Summons Within 28 Days
You need to respond to the summons and complaint by filing an answer form within 28 days of receiving the summons. Again, the deadline for responding to the case should be listed on the court summons.
The nonprofit Ohio Legal Help has a sample answer form you can download and fill out. This form can work well for anyone living outside of Franklin County. If you live in Franklin County, you can use the Ohio Legal Help Form Assistant to generate your answer form.
Filing the answer is pretty straightforward. You’ll need the name of the plaintiff (the person suing you), the court case number, and the name of the court hearing the case. This information will be on the summons.
Address Each Allegation in the Complaint
Next, you’ll address each of the claims in the plaintiff’s complaint. On the answer form, these are called allegations. You have three options:
You can admit that an allegation is true.
You can deny that an allegation is true.
You can say you don’t have enough information or don’t know if an allegation is true.
List and Explain Your Defenses
You can then check which defense(s) are relevant to your case. The defenses listed on the Ohio Legal Help form include:
The amount the plaintiff says I owe is incorrect.
The plaintiff is not the correct owner of the debt.
I am not the correct defendant and do not owe the plaintiff anything.
You may also include an explanation of your defense or provide documentation that backs it up. You’ll need to file this answer form along with a certificate of service with the court clerk. You can file the form in person at the courthouse. Ask the clerk to timestamp a copy of the form that you keep for records. You can also contact the clerk of court to ask if you can file it via mail and, if so, about any additional requirements.
Complete a Certificate of Service
You’ll also need to complete a certificate of service to go along with the answer form. It’s a simple one-page form that includes the plaintiff’s address, your signature, and the date you “served” the answer on the plaintiff. Serving the answer simply means mailing it to the opposing party at the address listed on the summons. File this form along with your answer form with the clerk of court.
Serve a Copy of the Answer on the Plaintiff
Serving a copy of the answer on the plaintiff is the final step of your response. You can do this using ordinary mail, though it’s better to send it via certified mail if possible. This helps to prove that the document was sent on a specific day. The date there should match up with the date on the certificate of service.
What Happens Next?
After you’ve filed your answer at the courthouse and sent a copy to the plaintiff, wait to receive further instructions from the court. There are a few possible next steps:
Court hearing: The court schedules a hearing date and hears both sides of the story before making a ruling.
Mediation: At the judge’s discretion, the court may decide to schedule a mediation before a trial. If the two parties come to an agreement at the mediation, no trial will be necessary.
Arbitration: The court may recommend arbitration, either party may request it, or your credit card/loan contract may require it.
If you attend the court hearing and the plaintiff doesn’t show up to the hearing, you can ask the judge to dismiss the case. Simply say, “Your honor, I request that you dismiss the case since the plaintiff isn’t here.”
Mediation vs. Arbitration: What’s the Difference?
Mediation is typically a non-binding process. It’s facilitated by a trained third-party mediator who helps both parties come to a mutual agreement. It’s less formal and has fewer rules than a court procedure.
Arbitration is more likely to be a binding process, meaning that both parties must agree to adhere to the outcome. In arbitration, there is also a third party present called an arbitrator. They have more power than a mediator in that they make the final decision. This process is more formal than mediation and has rules similar to a civil court procedure.
What Happens if You Don’t Respond to the Lawsuit?
If you don’t respond to the lawsuit and fight back, the debt collector will most likely win the case by default. The judge will grant them a default judgment, which is a formal court order that allows them to proceed with collection activity by garnishing your wages, levying your bank account, or putting a lien on your property.
The judge may also grant a default judgment if you don’t file an answer by the deadline or if you fail to show up to court-ordered hearings or appearances.
Receiving a summons can trigger stress, frustration, and confusion. This is normal. By reading this article, you are equipping yourself to fight back. While it may not seem possible, you can win the debt collection lawsuit even if you don’t have an attorney.
In fact, third-party debt collectors and debt buyers bring lawsuits frequently. They do so in hopes that you won’t show up to fight it, so they can gain easy access to your money to repay a debt (which you may or may not actually owe). Sometimes all it takes to stop them is answering the lawsuit. Let them know you’re taking this seriously and that you plan to exert your rights.
What Do You Do if the Court Already Issued a Default Judgment Against You?
If you didn’t respond to the debt collection lawsuit and the court entered a default judgment against you, you may be able to file a motion to vacate (cancel) the judgment. Motion is the legal term for a formal, written request to the court.
It can be difficult to convince the court to grant this kind of motion. You need to have a good reason for doing so. This is called a “meritorious defense.” You also need to file the motion within one year of the court entering the default judgment.
The judge ultimately decides what counts as a good reason for filing this motion, but the law cites newly discovered evidence, fraud, mistakes, and other forms of excusable neglect.
If you decide to file a motion to vacate the judgment, speak with the clerk at the courthouse where your case was filed. Ask them what forms are required for the motion and if there are any filing fees.
Need Legal Help?
Dealing with legal matters on your own can feel overwhelming. If you want legal advice or additional help dealing with a debt collection lawsuit and can’t afford to hire a lawyer, you may be able to get assistance from the following legal aid resources:
The Ohio State Bar Association’s Looking For Legal Help page provides links to legal aid resources and free or low-cost legal help across the state.
Ohio Legal Help provides help finding a free or low-cost lawyer and many resources for individuals to better understand how to deal with debt collectors in the state.
There may also be a regional legal aid resource in your area, such as Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, and Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. The Franklin Law Library has an exhaustive list of legal resources for Franklin County residents.
Court Procedure Information for Pro Se Filers from the Ohio State Bar Foundation
Ohio Judgment Collection Law: Information for Debtors from the Franklin County Law Library