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Know Your Rights: Default Judgments (Not Showing Up To A Court Case)

What Is a Default Judgment?

A default judgment is a decision on a court case where one sided has failed to show up to respond to the court case – in other words, they have “defaulted” by failing to show up.

Many people fail to go to court to respond to a court case. There are many reasons people do not respond to a court case; they may not have ben properly notified, may not understand the legal system, or may be afraid of what will happen A court can decide a case for or against someone involved in a lawsuit even if not everyone involved in the lawsuit shows up to court. Unfortunately, if you do not show up to respond to a lawsuit, you will likely automatically lose the case. The court order deciding the case against you is called a default judgment.

While going to court is scary, you should know that there is help available and resources that can guide you through the court process and make sure you understand what happens in court and the best way to handle the court case.

There are many types of judgments, but in cases where someone is trying to collect a debt from you, the judgment will be a money judgment – an official court statement that the you owe the other side (called the Plaintiff) money.

Once there is a money judgment against you, the amount you owe will grow because interest will apply to increase the total amount owed.

What Can Happen if there Is a Default Judgment Against Me?

Once a default judgment is entered stating that you owe the Plaintiff money, the Plaintiff can try to forcibly collect money from you.

A Plaintiff can try to forcibly collect money in several ways, including:

  1. Garnishing (taking) a portion of your income.
  2. Freezing your bank account or taking money from the account.
  3. Placing a Lien on a home you own or other property.

What Can I do if I learn about a Default Judgment?

Many people first learn about a court case when a Plaintiff tries to enforce a judgment by taking one of the steps described above to collect money.

However, it’s not too late to fight the default judgment. You can ask the court to vacate (get rid of) the judgment by filing a motion, which is a written request to the court. There is a specific form that must be used to make this request available at https://www.nycourts.gov/courthelp/diy/consumerdebt.shtml. This form will prompt you with questions so you can provide the right information to the court.

Reasons you can ask the court to reopen the case:

  1. You knew about the lawsuit, but have a good reason for not showing up AND a defense to the lawsuit (a reason you don’t owe the money)
  2. You were never served with notice of the lawsuit and did not know you were sued.

If I Did Not Receive Notice of the Lawsuit, What Do I Need to Show?

First, you should tell the judge that you didn’t receive copies of the court papers, and how you first learned about the lawsuit. (For many people, that might be a notice that their wages were going to be garnished or their bank account was frozen.)

You also need to review the affidavit of service, which is a statement by the process server, the person hired by the Plaintiff to deliver notice of the lawsuit to you, that explains how you received notice of the lawsuit. You can get a copy of the affidavit of service from the clerk’s office. In your motion, you should explain why the way the process server said they delivered the papers to you is not correct.

Some common problems with delivery methods:

  1. The process server went to an address where you did not live on the date the process server went there.
  2. The process server delivered the papers to a person with a description that does not match anyone in your household.
  3. The process server said they left the papers on your door but you never found papers on the door or received them by mail.

Once you have written the motion, bring the papers to the clerk’s office at court. The clerk will give you instructions on what to do next.

Questions?

Call the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) Consumer Protection Unit at 212-613-5000 (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM)

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