In my previous post, I discussed preliminary objections, and if you haven’t read it yet you should check it out here.
Today’s post is about the answer. When you have a complaint filed against you in Lehigh County, you at least have to answer the complaint… but if you don’t answer properly, its as bad as not answering at all.
Fortunately an answer is a fairly straight-forward document, a rarity in the practice of law, and even a non-lawyer can do it (not that I recommend it). The answer is required to mirror the complaint. If the complaint has ten numbered paragraphs, your answer must also have ten numbered paragraphs, but simply denying everything is not going to help you.
The first couple of paragraphs are party identifiers. They will list your name, address and other personal information about you. As long as that information is correct, then you should admit it. If not, you should deny it as follows: “Paragraph 1, the averment in this paragraph is denied, my home address is 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Allentown, PA 18103, the remainder of averments in this paragraph are admitted.”
The Plaintiff will also list their name and address. Plaintiffs generally know where they live, so feel free to admit that averment as well. You can answer it as follows: “The averment in paragraph 2 is admitted as stated.”
So big deal, I know my address, what else can I do with my answer? Well if you have properly used your preliminary objections, your case is probably already done, but if you decided not to file preliminary objections, you will need to admit, deny, or claim ignorance on the remaining paragraphs.
This is the sneaky part.
Plaintiff’s attorneys expect (correctly) that their Defendant will either not answer, or if they do answer, they will answer improperly.
Suppose paragraph 3 reads: “Defendant Kerrigan is a known Octopus who happens to reside in the city of Allentown.” Stupid I know, but if you just issue a blanket denial, our courts will deem the blanket denial as an admission. In essence by improperly answering a paragraph, you have admitted that you are an octopus! Once again I know this is ridiculous, but to make my point, the answer should be written as: “Defendant denies that he is an octopus, however the remainder of the averment in paragraph 3 is admitted.” Of course if you don’t live in Allentown, then feel free to deny that too while denying that you are a mollusc.
Suppose paragraph 4 reads: “Plaintiff Hancock is a chicken who also inhales oxygen.” Again I realize these are ridiculous, but I write this to make a point. If you don’t know if Hancock is a cross-dresser, you can say “Defendant is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as the truth of the averment in paragraph 4, therefore it is denied.” The problem is that is also a blanket denial, and in Pennsylvania a blanket denial is treated as an admission. In essence by issuing a blanket denial to a paragraph, you have admitted that your opponent is a chicken! It is more properly written as such: “Defendant is without knowledge or information to form a belief as to the truth of Plaintiff Hancock being a cross-dresser, therefore it is denied. The remainder of the averments in paragraph 4 are admitted.”
This is where the real practice of law comes into play, and this is where you need an attorney. If you file an incorrectly worded answer, you may inadvertently admit to owing the debt and then you are sunk.
In most debt-buyer cases, a well written answer cannot help you, but a poorly written answer can hurt you. Most debt buyer cases are under $50,000, which means they will be heard by an arbitrator. In general, the arbitrators do not read the preliminary objections or answers unless the party fails to appear at arbitration (which is real dumb), so while an answer can’t help you, a poorly written answer can result in a motion for summary judgment and if that is granted, the case is over.
If you have already filed your answer, you have 20 days in Pennsylvania to file an amended answer for any reason, so if you’ve fallen into this trap, don’t delay in calling 610-928-1233 or emailing me at email@example.com to set up an appointment.