The Superior Court maintains a “debt collection calendar” within the Civil Division that consists of two case types: (1) collection cases involving consumer debts like credit card debt, loans, condominium and homeowner’s association fees, and medical debt; and (2) insurance subrogation cases in which an auto insurer (such as GEICO) seeks to recover from the uninsured owner or driver after an automobile accident with an insured vehicle.
In both case types, all plaintiffs are represented by attorneys. Almost no defendants are represented when they appear for their initial hearings. The calendar combines small claims cases (seeking $10,000 or less) and civil action cases (seeking over $10,000).
The calendar is presided over by a magistrate judge. Those judges sit on the calendar in rotations that generally last for a calendar quarter. Although defendants can opt for a jury trial before an associate judge, those elections are rare. As a result of pandemic reforms, most hearings on the calendar are remote, in which the parties appear by video or telephone. Parties also have the option of appearing in person, but few do.
All cases are part of the court’s mediation program. Mediations are generally scheduled early in the life of the case. Although discovery is available, in most cases the parties do not conduct discovery because core information about the claim is either attached to the complaint or available to a defendant informally. Most cases in which defendants appear and participate are resolved by settlement. A substantial number of cases result in a default judgment.
D.C. legal services organizations offer free legal advice, information, and representation (as appropriate) to all eligible defendants on the calendar. Both the initial summons and later court notices sent to defendants provide information about obtaining legal services.
During the pandemic, a group of legal services providers established the Debt Collection Defense Hotline, a centralized resource for any individual seeking assistance with a consumer debt. That hotline is staffed by two organizations, Legal Aid DC and Tzedek DC, every weekday from 9:00 to 5:00. Callers can obtain free legal advice and information. Income-eligible callers are often offered some form of representation.
In addition, attorneys from the same two organizations appear at all sessions of the calendar (currently scheduled in one-hour blocks on Mondays and Tuesdays) and are available as a resource to defendants. Those attorneys provide live information to defendants about calling the hotline and in some circumstances offer some form of assistance on the spot.