Having a judgment as part of your public record can be hugely damaging in several ways, especially if it’s related to a lawsuit for collections on an unpaid debt.
First, it shows up on your credit report for seven years and impacts your ability to borrow money through loans and credit cards.
Not only that, if a potential employer or landlord runs a credit check, they’ll see the judgment listed. This raises a huge red flag and can affect your ability to get a job or rent an apartment.
Luckily, this stigma doesn’t have to stick with you forever. There are a few ways you can get a judgment vacated. Sound like a good idea? Keep reading to find out exactly how to do it.
What is a judgment?
When you lose a civil lawsuit, you receive a judgment to repair the damage caused by whatever actions you’re accused of. This commonly occurs when you’ve defaulted on a payment and your original creditor sells your outstanding debt to a collection agency.
As part of the collection process, you can be sued for the amount owed, plus interest and court costs. If you lose the lawsuit or fail to show up and defend yourself, the judge may enter a judgment against you.
You’ll have to pay the amount assessed by the court, otherwise, you’ll face some serious consequences. Interest will accrue, which can eventually double what you owe.
Additionally, the collection agency can forcibly collect through wage garnishment. Both of these scenarios should be avoided at all costs. Still, there are a few things you can do to take control of the situation.
What does it mean to vacate a judgment?
You can essentially get a judgment voided by having it vacated. This can be done in two different ways. The first option is to file an appeal with the goal of having an appeals court void the judgment. You would choose this option if it was a judgment on merits, meaning you defended yourself but lost the lawsuit.
The second option is to fight the original lawsuit by requesting the original court to vacate a default judgment. You would select this choice if you received a default judgment because you didn’t show up in court to fight the charges brought against you.
How to Get a Judgment Vacated
Legal proceedings must follow several very specific processes to be successful. That basically means there’s a lot of room for error. And if a collection agency doesn’t follow the process perfectly, you have the chance to get your judgment successfully vacated.
Why wouldn’t the judge automatically pick up on any potential infractions? As you can imagine, the legal system is extremely complex, and no singular judge is an expert in every type of law. In fact, a small claims court can see any number of different types of trials in just one day.
In addition to debt collection cases, a judge might also rule on cases related to evictions, personal injury, breach of contract, breach of warranty, and intentional harm.
She or he likely won’t have a working knowledge of every single minute detail of the law related to collections and consumer law. But if you make it your job to become that expert, you can use the information to your benefit and get the judgment successfully vacated.
How to Vacate a Default Judgment
Just as the collection agency should have followed specific procedures on their end, it’s vital that you do the same when you file a motion to vacate a default judgment. If you don’t, you could lose your chance to have the default judgment dismissed.
Take your time and be thorough the first time around because it’s probably your only shot. Don’t be too worried, though. We’ve pulled together each step you should take to have a successful process.
Review Your State Procedures
Before you do anything else, perform a bit of background research on your state’s specific laws regarding civil procedure. This information should tell you exactly how to submit your motion and where the information should be sent. The law might also outline more specific reasons that are valid for getting a default judgment dismissed.
If any of them apply to your situation, you’ve got an extremely compelling case. Read the information carefully and use the same type of wording in your motion letter. Again, pay careful attention to any and all relevant details so that your motion isn’t thrown out because of a technicality.
File a Motion to Vacate a Judgment
In order to file a motion and get your default judgment dismissed, you must write a letter explicitly stating your case. Here is the basic information you should include. The first thing to state is all of the identifying information associated with your case.
This includes your case name, court reference number, and all of the relevant parties. After that comes the meat and potatoes of the letter: your reasons for requesting a vacated judgment.
If there was a good reason you didn’t attend the original hearing and you received a default judgment, let the court know why that happened, especially if circumstances were beyond your control.
If you didn’t receive a summons and complaint, it may not be your fault. Each state law varies on what the appropriate procedure is to have this information delivered, so check on yours.
Another reason for vacating a default judgment is if you responded to the summons and complaint, but a judgment was issued even without a hearing. Remember, it’s your legal right to have a hearing to defend yourself.
If the hearing did take place but you had a valid reason for not attending, you can also state that information here. Maybe you had a family emergency or couldn’t take off work without jeopardizing your job.
Whatever the reason, plead your case — just try not to sound like you’re making frivolous excuses for yourself. After that, you can give a reason as to why the case itself should be dismissed.
Maybe the collection agency never properly validated the debt as you legally requested. Or maybe the interest they charged you was more than the state’s usury limits. If the collection agency overlooked even a small element of the law, make it known here.
Submit Your Motion
The procedure for filing a motion varies depending on where you live, but in most cases, you must go to the courthouse in person.
The important detail here is that it must be done at the courthouse where the original hearing took place. So if you’ve moved, you’ll have to return to the original location to file the motion and attend any subsequent hearings.
Once at the courthouse, bring your motion letter to the court clerk. You’ll pay a small filing fee and fill out some more forms. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; after all, the clerk is there to help.
Shortly afterward, you should receive notice of the newly scheduled court date to plead your case. The plaintiff (the collection agency) can respond to the hearing notice within 35 days. Be sure to clarify with the court whose responsibility it is to notify the plaintiff: theirs or yours.
Settling Outside of Court
If you have compelling documentation that the collection agency did not adhere to the law in their dealings with you, they may offer a settlement to avoid going to court.
This is especially true if you weren’t served a summons properly or if they broke a law in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Before accepting an offer for settlement, get the entire agreement in writing.
Have the collection agency file the paperwork to get the lawsuit dismissed and have them contact the credit bureaus and any third-party collection agencies they’ve hired to update your information.
These steps are crucial so that you can keep your credit intact and avoid being harassed for the same account in the future. Also, get them to forward you copies of any relevant paperwork from the court so you know that all steps have been completed properly.
Attending a Court Hearing
If the plaintiff does not offer to settle outside of court, you must attend your hearing at the scheduled time and place. Oftentimes, a representative from the collection agency won’t show up at all, meaning you win your court case by default. If they do show up, you have the opportunity to state your case.
Depending on your grounds for dismissal, the plaintiff has to prove they followed the legal procedures properly.
Lack of Documentation
If they can’t provide documentation that you were properly served your summons or cannot validate the original debt, then they shouldn’t have a strong case against you. It’s also helpful to bring any of your own documentation that can help your case.
If you do win, the default judgment should be dismissed and you should receive a letter from the court stating just that. The collection agency that sued you should forward this information to third-party collectors and the credit bureaus so that your credit information can be updated accurately.
You can also send copies of your court document on your own to ensure that your credit history is updated quickly and accurately.
How else can you get rid of a judgment?
If for some reason you don’t successfully vacate the judgment, there are a few other ways to take care of it. Remember, any unpaid judgment can accrue interest and subject you to wage garnishment, so you should take some type of action.
If you’re able to, you can pay the amount owed in full, which results in a satisfied judgment. This still appears on your credit reports, but it’s better than an outstanding judgment. You can also negotiate a different payment amount with the judgment creditor.
You might offer a lower lump sum or get on a payment plan. This tactic results in a settled judgment. Finally, the most drastic option is filing for bankruptcy to discharge the judgment. Obviously, this is a huge decision and should only be undertaken if you have other serious financial concerns that you can’t overcome.
As with any legal or financial matter, the first step is to educate yourself. You’ve already done this by reading through this article. The second step is to enlist professional help to cover all of your bases and fill in any knowledge gaps.
Whether you need a trial lawyer, a bankruptcy lawyer, or a credit repair specialist, explore all of your options and don’t be afraid to get professional legal advice.