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Guide to Suing an HOA in Small Claims Court

Camila Lopez - HOA - July 5, 2024

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Contents

    Homeowners frequently find themselves in disputes with their HOAs, leading to a sense of frustration and tension. This can be particularly unfortunate for those seeking to enjoy peaceful living in their homes. While some conflicts may be resolved through communication and agreement, certain situations may require legal action

    In the article below, we will discuss different strategies for resolving disputes with HOAs, provide examples of lawsuits filed against HOAs and go over the small claims process.  

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to an HOA? Check out our demand letter tool.

    Quick Facts About Small Claims Court 

    How much can you sue for in small claims court? 

    The amount you can sue for in small claims court is known as the small claims limit. This amount varies by state and even by court. 

    Usually, the small claims limit is around $10,000, but it varies by state.

    How long do you have to sue in small claims court? 

    States have set deadlines, called statutes of limitations, that let you know by when you should sue an HOA. 

    These deadlines will vary by state and by type of claim

    How much does it cost to sue in small claims court? 

    States have made filing in small claims court accessible. 

    Most small claims court charge between $10-$75 to file a lawsuit. 

    Some small claims courts also offer court fee waivers, which means if you apply, you could pay $0 to file and serve your lawsuit. 

    Who can represent you in small claims court? 

    Small claims courts were intended to allow individuals to file, and represent themselves without the need for a lawyer

    Some small claims courts, like California small claims, don’t even allow lawyers to represent individuals at the initial small claims hearing. 

    Common Types of Small Claims Lawsuits Against HOAs

    You can sue an HOA in small claims court as long as the dispute falls within the small claims limit discussed above. 

    Here are some common types of small claims lawsuits filed against HOAs: 

    Breach of Contract

    For example, the CC&Rs state the HOA will pay for all plumbing repairs. You hire a plumber to fix a leak, and the HOA refuses to pay the plumbing bill. 

    Property Damage 

    Examples: 

    The gate into the community malfunctions and damages your car. 

    The HOA failed to maintain the community’s landscaping, and a tree falls on top of your car. 

    Illegal or Wrongful Towing 

    For example, the HOA did not provide a sign with the towing company information. 

    Disputes Over Fines or Assessment Fees 

    For example, the HOA makes you pay improper fees, and you want to be reimbursed for those fees. 

    Election Disputes 

    For example, the board elects a new member to the HOA without following proper election procedures as per the HOA bylaws. 

    Negligence 

    For example, the HOA fails to maintain the pool deck, and you slip and fall. Negligence law can be quite nuanced, we will discuss this further in a section below. 

    Examples of Lawsuits Filed Against HOAs 

    Case Facts 

    Case Outcome 

    A San Bernardino small claims lawsuit was filed against an HOA for causing damage to a car due to a faulty gate.

    The resident was seeking a total of $10,000 in damages, to cover the cost of repairing the back side of the car, the HOA-imposed fine to repair the gate, and "punitive damages."

    The court awarded the tenant the total $10,000 they were seeking, plus an additional $190 in court costs

    A Los Angeles small claims lawsuit was filed against an HOA for failing to pay for services rendered by a business.

    The business suing was seeking a total of $5,000, which includes the monthly fees owed to the company for their services as well as any late fees incurred.

    The court awarded the business a total of $4,000, plus an additional $90 in court costs. It is unclear from the court’s decision why they awarded that amount. 

    A San Diego small claims lawsuit was filed against an HOA for failing to pay the cost of plumbing that had to be done to a resident’s condo after a sewer leak, as per the CC&Rs.  

    The resident was suing for a total of $4,500, which was the full amount for the plumbing bill

    The court awarded the resident the total $4,500 they were seeking, plus an additional $50 in court costs

    *Please remember, each small claims case is unique, and the outcome of a particular case cannot be guaranteed. Ultimately, it will be up to the judge to decide how responsible the HOA is for your damages and how much they owe you. 


    Steps to Take Before Suing an HOA in Small Claims Court 

    Before suing in small claims court, consider taking some of the following steps below to either try to resolve your dispute with the HOA outside of court or to be better prepared to file a small claims lawsuit

    Step 1. Reach Out to the HOA 

    Oftentimes, homeowners or residents are able to resolve their disputes with their HOAs outside of court. Reach out to the Board of Directors of the HOA and see if they know about the problem and how they can resolve the issue.  

    If the HOA does not agree to reimburse you or pay damages out of court, then it might be time to escalate the situation. Even if the HOA board denied your request for reimbursement or denied taking action to resolve the problem, this doesn’t mean you don’t have a legal case. Ultimately, it will be up to a judge to decide who is legally responsible for the dispute at hand. 

    Step 2. Check the HOA Bylaws and CC&Rs

    It is good practice to review any rules or regulations that may apply to you before taking any sort of legal action. 

    Here are some reasons you may want to familiarize yourself with the HOAs bylaws and the CC&Rs (which stand for Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions): 

    • Your claim may be based on an HOA bylaw violation or CC&R violation, make sure to know which clauses apply to your issue to strengthen your future lawsuit

    • There may be a clause in the HOA bylaws that you are required to first go through mediation, arbitration, or alternative dispute resolution before filing a small claims lawsuit against the HOA.

    • The bylaws or CC&Rs may limit who can be liable for certain damages. For example, some bylaws may state HOA board members can’t be held personally liable for damages you suffer because of a violation or negligence. Ultimately, it is up to a judge to decide who is responsible for your damages. 

    Step 3. Review the Appropriate Federal or State Laws on HOAs

    Most states have laws that govern how HOAs work, how they are formed, and their potential liability to homeowners. It may be worthwhile taking a quick look at your state’s HOAs laws to understand better what type of action you can bring against them or what type of relief you can ask for in court. 

    Here are some examples of HOA state laws: 

    Additionally, if an HOA is discriminating against you and adversely affecting your right to buy, rent, or enjoy the use of your property, the HOA may be violating your federal rights under the Fair Housing Act

    If you have any questions or concerns about possible claims against an HOA, reach out to an attorney to discuss some of the laws mentioned above. 

    Step 4. Save All Evidence 

    Try to save all evidence relevant to your interactions with the HOA, which may include:

    • Photographs or videos.

    • HOA bylaws, CC&Rs, and Rules and Regulations, especially specific sections or clauses related to your issue. 

    • Relevant minutes of HOA board meetings.

    • Notices or violation notices that you have received from the HOA.

    • Evidence that proves the amount you are seeking to recover, such as repair estimates for your damaged property.

    • Written communications with the HOA, its board members, and property managers, including emails, text messages, letters, and other documents.

    Saving this evidence can help support your case and provide documentation for the claims you are making against the HOA.

    Step 5. Send a Demand Letter 

    Sending a demand letter to an HOA can be a good first step before taking legal action. A demand letter is a formal letter that outlines demands that you want an HOA to take. For example, you can ask an HOA to reimburse you for repairs you had to pay out-of-pocket that the HOA should have covered. 

    Here are some reasons you should send a demand letter to an HOA before filing a lawsuit: 

    • Sending written notice to your HOA before taking legal action against them may be a requirement under the bylaws, small claims rules, or state laws. 

    • The HOA will take your problem more seriously if you send a formal written demand letter. 

    • If you do end up taking legal action, you can use the demand letter as evidence in court of your good-faith attempt to resolve the dispute outside of court. 

    • By sending a demand letter, you may be able to resolve your dispute outside of court

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to an HOA? Check out our demand letter tool.

    Step 6. Consider Consulting With an Attorney 

    Your HOA claim may be complicated, or you may be suing for a significant amount of money. If you aren’t sure about the legal claims you want to bring against an HOA, consider consulting with a lawyer

    • Reach out to a lawyer that specializes in lawsuits against HOAs or even Real Estate lawyers who may deal with HOA lawsuits

    • If your claim relates to negligence or personal injury, reach out to a lawyer that deals with these specific areas of law, as they can be quite nuanced. 

    • Don’t be discouraged if a lawyer doesn’t take your case because your claim is too “small.” Small claims courts were created to empower everyday people to resolve their disputes in an informal court setting without the need for an attorney

    Suing an HOA in Small Claims Court 

    What is the Maximum Amount You Can Sue an HOA For in Small Claims Court?

    Check your local small claims court website to find out how much you can sue an HOA for. Or check out our 50-state guide to small claims court limits

    Here are some facts about the small claims limit: 

    • If you want to sue for more than the small claims limit, you will have to waive whatever amount is over the limit or consider suing in a regular court (however, this is going to be more expensive). 

    • You may be able to sue for more than just money in some small claims courts. Some court rules allow individuals to seek other forms of relief in small claims court if allowed under a state statute. For example, the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 500.3 allows people suing for small claims matters to recover civil penalties and other relief allowed by law. Learn more about Texas small claims court

    By When Should You File a Small Claims Lawsuit Against an HOA? 

    The deadline for filing a small claims lawsuit against an HOA varies by state and by claim type. This deadline is known as the statute of limitations. For example, if you are filing a small claims lawsuit against an HOA for breach of contract, you would need to look up the breach of contract statute of limitations in your state. 

    Step by Step How to Sue an HOA in Small Claims Court 

    There are generally 4 steps in the small claims process:

    1. Prepare the lawsuit. 

    2. File the lawsuit.

    3. Serve the lawsuit.

    4. Prepare for the hearing.

    We break down each one of these steps below. 

    Step 1. Prepare Your Small Claims Lawsuit 

    You will need to fill out the required forms for your small claims lawsuit. These forms usually ask you a series of questions. Below we have included some of the most relevant questions you will need to answer. 

    The form will ask you, “Who are you suing?” 

    • This means you need to identify the legal name of the HOA, their address, and their "agent of service of process."  

    • To find out the legal name of the HOA, search your state’s Secretary of State website, as most HOAs are not-for-profit corporations, LLCs, or corporations. 

    • Make sure the HOA is the right entity to sue for your issue. We often see clients get confused about who they need to sue for their claims. Check out our guides on suing landlords, property managers, and neighbors to see what types of lawsuits are filed against them. 

    The form will also ask, “How much are you suing for?” 

    • Keep in mind the small claims limit when deciding how much to sue for. For example, across California you can sue an HOA for up to $12,500, while in New York City, you can sue for up to $10,000. 

    • Calculate your damages by checking relevant receipts, bills, invoices, etc. 

    Finally, you will need to answer why you are suing the HOA.  

    • For example, if you are suing for property damages, you need to state this on the form. 

    • Make sure to be detailed in your response, if you can. Provide relevant dates, and background facts if it will help you explain your claim better. 

    Step 2. File Your Small Claims Lawsuit 

    Once you have prepared your small claims forms, you will need to file them with the court. Depending on your local small claims courts, you may be able to file your claim using one of the various methods below:

    1. In person at the small claims court,

    2. Online,

    3. Mail, or 

    4. By Fax. 

    Contact your local small claims court to find out which options are available to you. Keep in mind that People Clerk can help you prepare and file your small claims lawsuit against your tenant. 

    Step 3. Serve Your Small Claims Lawsuit 

    After filing your small claims lawsuit, the next step is to notify the HOA that you are suing them. This is called "service of process" or "serving."

    Who can serve a small claims lawsuit?

    • NOT YOU. You cannot serve your own small claims lawsuit.

    • Court Clerk. The court clerk may be able to serve the lawsuit by mail. 

    • Process Server. A process server may be able to serve your lawsuit. A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits. This is what they do for a living, so they are pretty good at it. 

    • Sheriff. Not all sheriffs serve small claims lawsuits, this will depend on the county where 

    • Friend or Family member. You can have an adult friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. Make sure they are not part of the lawsuit or aren't involved with what happened with the lawsuit. 

    Step 4. Prepare for Your Small Claims Hearing

    To prepare to win at your small claims court hearing: 

    • Research the law. Depending on your claim, you may need to be well-versed in state or federal laws. 

    • Prepare your evidence. Your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why the HOA owes you compensation for damages. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. People Clerk can help you organize your evidence in a judge-friendly evidence packet.

    • Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing the HOA. The judge will then turn to the HOA representative, and ask for their side of the story. Start by addressing the judge as “your honor,” and from there, explain in a clear and concise manner what the dispute is about. For example, “Your honor, I am suing the HOA for property damage.” 

    • Print enough copies of all your evidence. Make sure you have enough copies for yourself, the HOA, and the judge. 

    Learn about the 5 mistakes you should avoid making during your small claims hearing. 

    Alternatives to Suing an HOA in Small Claims Court 

    Not sure you want to pursue a small claims action against your HOA? Below, we discuss other ways you may be able to resolve your dispute against an HOA. 

    Consider Filing a Complaint against an HOA

    You may be able to file a complaint against an HOA with a government or non-government organization. 

    Consider Mediation

    Another option you have to resolve a dispute you have against an HOA is mediation. Mediation tends to be very successful when both parties have a prior relationship. For homeowners and HOAs, this tends to be the case. 

    • Mediation is a meeting between you, the HOA, and a neutral third person called a mediator. 

    • Mediation is an effort to see if the parties can come to a mutually agreeable solution or settlement.

    • If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit. The agreement can be for the same amount of money being claimed in the lawsuit and can involve other non-monetary agreements between you and the HOA.

    • Depending on your local small claims court, you can choose to participate in mediation prior to the hearing as part of the small claims court process, or you can try to find mediation programs outside of the court.  

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to an HOA? Check out our demand letter tool.

    Author

    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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