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A strange situation has came to me recently. Me and my former employer have not parted on the best of terms, and a few months later, I have received a letter from an attorney representing my former employer, which demands payment for damages, and the listed reason is a complete non sequitur and feels bogus, for example done as spite to waste my time and/or money.

Is there any resource for individuals to respond to this type of demand letter, before a lawyer is contacted, perhaps to request clarification, or must all interaction be through a lawyer after receiving the first letter?

Location is USA

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must all interaction be through a lawyer after receiving the first letter?

Consistent with others' answer, no, you don't need a lawyer. But your question in and of itself is indicative of the steep learning curve you would need to undergo in order to avoid "shooting yourself in the foot", as the saying goes.

By this I am not encouraging you to get a lawyer (in fact, here on stackexchange and elsewhere I promote litigation in pro per). Instead, I encourage people to learn about the applicable statutes, procedural laws, how to conduct legal research, and to draft/present their arguments in court.

Here are some suggestions regarding your response letter:

  • Avoid sarcastic admissions such as "Right, for sure I am at fault for the employer's [fill_in_the_blanks]".
  • If you ask for a clarification, clearly state that you expect reasonably sufficient detail as well as any and all records that substantiate the alleged damages. Although that won't strictly limit the allegations the employer can make in court proceedings, the attorney's reply might help evidencing the employer's vexatious approach later on.
  • Avoid wording that may be misinterpreted as consciousness of guilt.
  • Be assertive and truthful. Keep in mind the lawyer is gauging (1) how easily he can intimidate you, and (2) whether he can make additional claims to harass you via court proceedings.
  • From now on, all your interactions with the attorney and the employer should be in writing (preferably email, given its reproducibility). When unethical individuals are aware that their position is devoid of merit, they are very tempted to indulge in false accusations (of threat, for example). Thus, communications in writing constitute objectively verifiable proof of who is acting unlawfully.
  • Even if the attorney premises on your contract (or employment agreement/manual, or company's guidelines) the alleged damages, the clauses at issue might be illegal and therefore void. For instance, from 2007-2012 my former employer (an Indian IT intermediary) prohibited me --via contract-- to disclose my salary. The contract contained the typical lawyered babbling, but that doesn't mean that all of it was legal. In 2013 I realized that the prohibition violated Michigan law, and he had no option but to strike the entire clause. That being said, I didn't sue him for that, but for other more important matters which are currently pending review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Absent any further context in your inquiry, it is hard to make additional suggestions on how to proceed.

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You do not need a lawyer to communicate with another lawyer - indeed even if the matter goes to trial - if you are competent you can represent yourself.

You have not advised the state, and the specifics will vary based on that, but have a look at this link as a broad overview and possibly even more relevantly the section "In civil court" in this link.

None of this is to say that engaging with another parties lawyer directly, or going to court unrepresented is necessarily a smart thing to do. If you are going to go down this route, say as little as you possibly can. There are some free resources you can find online with template letters depending on your scenario. Look at the "Legal" section here as a possible aid.

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There is no general "resource", in the sense of a ubiquitous free service that you could call on. You may be able to avail yourself of free legal clinic services at your university, if applicable. Googling "legal clinic" may provide you with something useful. Generally, though, these services are predicated on the premise that your income is low enough that you can't afford an attorney, or, the clinic specializes in particular areas such as tenant law, discrimination, immigration. One of the law schools in my area has a clinic focused on employment law, which is adjacent to your issue.

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