Are you looking to sue a homeowners association in California small claims?
In this article, learn about:
- Common types of small claims lawsuits against HOAs
- What to do before suing an HOA in small claims.
- The maximum amount you can sue an HOA for in small claims court.
- How much it costs to sue an HOA in small claims.
- How to file a small claims lawsuit against an HOA.
- What to expect during a small claims hearing.
- Mediation as an option for resolving your dispute against an HOA.
- Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed to represent you or the HOA in small claims! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.
Common types of small claims lawsuits against HOAs
We often receive the question, can I sue a homeowners association in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as the dispute is for $10,000 or less (more on this below). Disputes with HOAs are very common in small claims court.
Here are some examples of small claims lawsuits against HOAs:
The HOA is responsible for damage to your property
- For example, if a gate at the HOA malfunctions and damages your car, then you can sue the HOA for damages to your car. Make sure to bring estimates or an invoice of how much it will cost to repair your car!
The HOA illegally or wrongfully had your car towed.
- For example, if an HOA did not provide a sign with the towing company information, then you can sue the HOA in small claims court.
The HOA improperly assessed fines or fees contrary to the CC&Rs
- For example, did you pay improper fees assessed by your HOA? You can sue the HOA in small claims for reimbursement of those fees or fines you paid.
What to do before suing an HOA in small claims
Reach Out to the HOA
The first thing to do when a problem arises is to communicate with the Board of Directors of the homeowners association as many disputes are often resolved out of court.
If the HOA does not agree to reimburse you or pay damages out of court, then it might be time to escalate the situation. Keep in mind that if the HOA board denied your request after an HOA Board vote for reimbursement or damages, it does not mean you are legally incorrect. It is up to a judge to decide who is legally correct.
Many HOA's have mandatory mediation or arbitration in their bylaws
If the HOA bylaws apply to you (for example, if you own property that is part of the HOA), then make sure to read the bylaws in detail to understand what procedures are required before suing in small claims. There may be a clause that you are required to first go through mediation, arbitration, or alternative dispute resolution before filing a small claims lawsuit against the HOA.
Save All Evidence
You want to make sure to save all evidence related to your interactions with the HOA. For example, you want to make sure to save:
- Any pictures or videos relating to your lawsuit.
- HOA bylaws, CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions), and Rules and Regulations if they are related to your lawsuit.
- HOA board meeting minutes if they are related to your lawsuit.
- Any notices or violation notices you have received from the HOA.
- Evidence that demonstrates how much you are suing for. For example, estimates to repair your car or other damaged property.
- Written communications you have had with the HOA, any of its board members, property managers (text messages, emails, letters, etc).
Send a Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could write to the HOA to request that they reimburse you to repair your car, penalties assessed, etc.
If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter.
It is very common to request reimbursement via text message or by phone but you may have a higher chance of receiving payment if you do it in the form of a letter. Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands for payment via text message or by phone. You can also save any responses you receive from the HOA and include it in your evidence for the small claims hearing.
If you are also planning on suing a property owner in addition to the HOA, make sure to also demand payment from them before suing in small claims!
What to include in the demand letter?
Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to the HOA? Here are a few suggestions:
- How much money you are owed.
- Why you are owed money.
- Your contact information.
- Where to send payment.
- Option to mediate your dispute (there are many organizations in California that provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit in order to obtain access). More on mediation below.
- Give the HOA a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).
- Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.
Contact a Lawyer
If you think your case against an HOA may be worth more than $10,000, you may want to reach out to a lawyer in your area to see how much they think your lawsuit is worth. Many lawyers provide free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit.
Don't be discouraged if no lawyers are returning your calls. Why? Your case may not be lucrative enough for a lawyer. Usually, when a lawsuit is worth $10,000 or less, most lawyers don't find it worth their time. This is one of the reasons why small claims court was created! It is meant to work for people without lawyers.
The maximum amount you can sue an HOA for in small claims court is $10,000
If an HOA owes you $10,000 or less, then you can sue in a California small claims court. If you are owed more than $10,000, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed.
For example, if an HOA caused you $11,000 damages to your car, by suing in small claims you are agreeing to waive $1,000. If you win, you will win a maximum of $10,000.
Why would someone agree to waive any amount over $10,000 that they are owed:
- Suing in regular court is more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.
- You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court making it cheaper.
- Hearings in small claims court are scheduled 30-75 days after the lawsuit is filed.
How much does it costs to sue an HOA in small claims?
- It costs between $30-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit against an HOA.
- Once the lawsuit is filed, the HOA has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This is called serving. You can serve for free if you have a friend or family member deliver the lawsuit to the HOA or you can pay between $40-$75 to have the small claims lawsuit professionally served.
- If you are on California public benefits like Medi-cal, Food Stamps, SSI, you pay $0 in court fees and serving costs.
How to file a small claims lawsuit against an HOA
Step 1: Identify the legal name for the HOA, their address, and their "agent of service of process."
In order to sue in California small claims, you need to be able to correctly name the person or business you are suing. You also need to list an address for them on the lawsuit and later on, you will need to be able to serve them.
- Search on the California Secretary of State's website. The HOA is likely registered as a corporation or LLC. You will need to identify the name of the corporation or LLC. In this article, we cover this process in detail. It is important to identify who the agent for service of process (someone selected by the corporation or LLC to receive legal documents on its behalf) as this is the person who will be served.
- Fictitious Business Names. Many HOA's use a name other than their legal name to do business. They do this for marketing purposes usually because their legal name is too long. A name other than a legal name is called a fictitious business name. Each county has a database of fictitious business names where you can search for the real legal entity name. In this article, we cover this process in detail.
Step 2: Complete "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)
- This form starts the California Small Claims Court lawsuit process. Download here.
- It is also known as the "complaint" or "claim."
Step 3: File "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court"
Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. You have to check with your local small claims court whether they allow filing in-person, by mail, online, or by fax. Or we can file your case for you!
Step 4: Serve the HOA
Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify the HOA that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You must serve the HOA at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing). There are several ways you can serve the HOA including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. You cannot serve your own lawsuit.
Remember, you will be serving the HOA's "agent for service of process" as listed on the California Secretary of State's website. Learn more here.
The Small Claims Court Hearing
Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-70 days later. During this time, the HOA may call you to try and settle the lawsuit. If you come to an agreement, you can close your small claims lawsuit.
To prepare for your small claims court hearing:
- Research the law. Remember, in small claims you don't need to necessarily cite a specific law (unless you are basing your legal theories on a very unknown subject area), you just need to be able to prove that you are "right" and the HOA is "wrong." Sometimes this can be as simple as proving that the HOA improperly did something or failed to reimburse you.
- Where to research the law? Lawsuits against HOAs are very common so thankfully there are a lot of free resources. If you are unsure about what laws relate to your lawsuit, consult an attorney or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way).
- Prepare your evidence. Pictures, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you should win. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to court showing exactly how much you are owed and why you are owed money.
Keep in mind that People Clerk will 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 and how you calculated the amount you are owed. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing the HOA in small claims court today because they illegally towed my car. I had to pay $2,000 to get my car from the tow yard." Then go into the details.
- Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs.
- Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, one for the HOA representative).
Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
- Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or the HOA at the initial hearing. If the HOA loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.
Mediation as an option for resolving your dispute
What is mediation?
Mediation is a meeting between you, the HOA, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you and the HOA come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. If you reach an agreement with the HOA during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.
How can I try to mediate the dispute with the HOA?
In California, there are many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.
Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs their small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.