The court will tell you the address of the courthouse, the number of the courtroom, and the time of your appearance. The court is usually crowded for these types of proceedings, and you may have to wait in line to pass through metal detectors and to board the elevators depending on what court you are in. You should arrive early so that you can get up to the courtroom before your appointed time. You should be prepared to spend the entire morning at the courthouse. Most of that time will be spent in the courtroom waiting for your case to be called.
When you find the courtroom, you will see a bulletin board next to the door. The bulletin board has lists of cases that will be heard in that courtroom on that day. Look for your name on the bulletin board to confirm that you are in the right place. Write down the number of your case. Enter the courtroom and sit or stand quietly until the clerk begins the calendar call. Some courts will have a counter where you can let the clerk know that you’re here and then she put your file on the judge’s desk in the order received. Remember that each court may have slightly different formats to one I’m describing here. It’s a good idea to call ahead of time (about a week before is good) and find out from the clerk just how the process unfolds in that particular court. Best time to call the court is later in the afternoon, after 3:00 when things are not so busy.
The Docket Call
At some point in the morning, the clerk will begin the "docket call." The clerk will begin by explaining the rules of the court, and then will read a list of cases to verify that the parties are present. Case names are read in the same order that they are posted on the bulletin board. Listen carefully for your name. When you hear your name, stand up and say, “Ready your Honor”. When the clerk says, "marked as ready," take a seat. Your case will not be heard until after the docket call is finished. If you need an interpreter, be sure to ask for one at the counter when you check in.
Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, you have a right to an interpreter if you need one. It is important that you understand what is happening in the courtroom, so do not be afraid to ask for an interpreter. The court can and will provide interpreters in ANY language.
Negotiating with the Plaintiff's Attorney
As the morning goes on, you will notice the attorneys in the room (who represent the various creditors) calling out the names of defendants. At some point, the attorney who represents the plaintiff in your case will probably call out your name and ask you to step outside the courtroom. Remember, the attorney represents the plaintiff, and the attorney's job is to get money from you. The attorney may seem nice, but he or she is not on your side. The attorney will ask you whether you want to settle the case. Hopefully, you will be prepared for this moment because you will have thought about it in advance and reached a decision. Your job is to stick to the decision you made. If you decided not to settle the case, tell the attorney that you do not want to settle at this time. Do not allow the attorney to pressure you into paying more than you think you can afford. See Negotiating a Settlement in Court.
You do not have to agree to a settlement. If you can't afford to make payments or if you don't owe the debt, you should never enter into a settlement agreement.
If you do not feel comfortable negotiating with the attorney in the hallway, you can always request a conference with court personnel. The court staff cannot give you legal advice, but they will help ensure that the plaintiff's attorney treats you fairly.
Seeing the Judge
Later in the morning, you probably will go before the judge. Not always but probably. Generally, if you and the plaintiff agree that the case should be discontinued or adjourned to another day, you will not see the judge. However, if you and the plaintiff cannot reach agreement, you probably will see a judge. When you go before the judge, the judge will want to hear your defenses and why you do not want to enter into a settlement agreement. You should make the same points to the judge that you made to the attorney. Keep it to bullet points. We live in a sound bite society and judges are people too. They will appreciate your preparedness and conciseness. If you think the case should be dismissed because you have a solid defense, you do not owe the debt, or the plaintiff lacks evidence, you need to speak up and ask the judge to dismiss the case. Remember to be truthful and respectful, because the judge will be deciding whether he or she should believe you and your story. After speaking to both parties, the judge will decide how to resolve the case. Usually, the case will be adjourned to another day, and the plaintiff will be instructed to bring proof of the debt to the next court date.
If you were not properly served, you have the right to ask the court to dismiss the case. However, you must assert this defense on your first court date, or you will lose it. If you want to argue that you were improperly served, do not agree to adjourn your case for another day. Instead, tell the court clerk that you want to see the judge. Ask the judge to dismiss the case for improper service. Some judges do not like this defense as you are present in the courtroom and you did get notice of the lawsuit. Nevertheless, the Michigan court rules clearly set forth the process by which a Plaintiff is to serve the lawsuit and these rules need to be followed in a collection case just as in any other case.
Your Second (or Third) Court Appearance
Your second (or third) court date is likely to be very similar to your first court date. You should follow the same steps outlined above to prepare for your court appearance. If you have a solid defense, you should continue to assert it. You should also continue to ask the plaintiff for proof of the debt. If the plaintiff lacks proof of the debt at the second court date, you should ask to see the judge. Ask the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence. The plaintiff never should have filed the case in the first place without adequate proof and now on the second or third court date they still have not show admissible evidence that they own the debt and have standing to sue. The court will decide whether to dismiss the case or give the plaintiff one last chance to get proof of the debt. If you are attending your third court date, and the plaintiff still has no proof of the debt, you should insist that the case be dismissed. Try to get the case dismissed "with prejudice," which means that it can never be brought again.
Sometimes the plaintiff might come forward with some documentation of the debt, or the plaintiff's lawyer might give you some additional legal papers. If so, ask the court for an adjournment so that you have time to respond to the documents or papers. Call my office, Rex Anderson PC, 810-653-3300 if you need further advice.