Should You Choose a Bench Trial or Jury Trial in a Debt Collection Lawsuit?
When a debt-collection lawsuit goes to trial, it can either be a bench trial or a jury trial. Which is the best option for consumers defending against a lawsuit filed by a debt collector? There are multiple considerations.
The majority of lawsuits filed in the Massachusetts court system are brought to collect debts. Many lawsuits are by credit card companies like Bank of America, Capital One, Citi, Discover, or American Express. Some lawsuits are brought by student loan companies like the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA) or National Collegiate Student Loan Trust.
Other suits are brought by debt buyers who purchase bad debts – credit cards, medical debt, and phone bills – in order to collect them, usually by filing lawsuits. Some of the largest debt buyers and their affiliates are LVNV Funding, Resurgent Capital, Midland Funding, Midland Credit Management, Portfolio Recovery Associates, Cavalry Portfolio, and Cavalry SPV. There are many more than are listed here.
There is no getting around the importance of the right to a jury trial. It is guaranteed by the 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and by Article XV of the Massachusetts Constitution. It is one of the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon legal system and goes back to the Magna Carta and beyond.
Demanding a jury trial is simple. Under Rule 38 of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, a jury trial is always a right so long as it is demanded within 10 days of filing of your last pleading. In practice this is usually done by making the jury demand in one’s Answer to the Complaint.
But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you have to. There are strategic considerations that go into whether to choose a jury trial. And, you can always demand a jury trial at the beginning of the case, and then decide whether you want one as the trial date gets closer.
Why wouldn’t you want a jury trial in a debt collection case? In short, because debt collection cases usually depend on evidentiary issues — whether the debt collector owns the account. Judges are often better at picking apart the paltry documentation most debt collectors and debt buyers produce.
The issue in most debt-collection lawsuits is an evidentiary one: does the debt collector own the account? The question is not whether the consumer had an account with the creditor or debt collector (the answer to that is usually clear).
Debt collectors and their attorneys often try to make emotional arguments, asking juries to disregard this important evidentiary issue, and to focus on whether the account is in default. They try to paint consumers as deadbeats. This not only ignores any underlying issues that may have existed, it also asks the juries to make their decision based on emotions — negative feelings toward the consumers — rather than the evidence.
Judges, unlike juries, are trained to not let their emotions get in the way of the law. For this reason, a judge is often the best one to decide the legal issues at state in a debt-collection case. Most cases boil down to whether various documents produced by the debt collector are admissible under the Rules of Evidence.
That said, each case is different, and a jury may sometimes be a better choice. In cases of harassment by debt collectors, a jury is preferable. A jury is also preferable in cases where there are disputed facts, such as oral agreements or misrepresentations.
There is no simple answer, and whether any particular debt collection case is better with a judge or a jury is a complicated one. But the considerations outlined in this article are some of the ones that our office keeps in mind when representing our clients in debt-collection lawsuits in the Massachusetts courts.
Culik Law is a Boston, Massachusetts consumer protection law firm that represents consumers against creditors, debt collectors, and debt buyers in matters involved credit cards, student loans, and other debts. If you are being sued or dunned by a debt collector, contact us to see how we can help.