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Dollar Limitations. Although owners can sue associations for claims up to $12,500 (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.221), associations are limited to $6,250. (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.220.) No person may file more than two small claims actions in which the amount demanded exceeds two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500), anywhere in the state in any calendar year.. (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.231(a).)

Attorney Limitations. Attorneys are not permitted to represent parties in small claims court actions. However, attorneys are allowed to provide advice to a party before or after the commencement of a small claims action. Attorneys are also allowed to represent parties in a small claims appeal (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.530.)

Who May Appear. Homeowner associations created to manage a common interest development, as defined Civil Code § 4100, may appear and participate in a small claims action through an agent, a management company representative, or bookkeeper,  or a duly appointed or elected officer or director who appears on behalf of that association. (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.540(i).)

ADR Is Not Required. Associations and members using small claims court are not required to first make an offer of pre-litigation alternative dispute resolution


Delinquent Assessments. Associations are allowed to simultaneously record a lien on a property for delinquent assessments and sue for a money judgment. Once an association obtains a money judgment against a delinquent owner, any existing assessment lien on the property is automatically extinguished and must be replaced with a judgment lien if the association wants to preserve its rights. (Diamond Heights v. Financial Freedom.) There are additional limitations on assessment collections that apply to foreclosures that do not apply to small claims actions.

An association that seeks to collect delinquent...assessments of an amount less than...$1,800...may not collect that debt through judicial or nonjudicial foreclosure, but may...collect...that small claims court...(Civ. Code § 5720(b).)

In other words, the $1,800 limitation applies to foreclosures NOT small claims actions. The statute clarifies the point by stating that "The amount that may be recovered...for delinquent assessments may not exceed the jurisdictional limits of the small claims court." (Civ. Code § 5720(b)(1).)  If the association receives a money judgment, the board can levy against the owner's bank account, sell personal property (vehicles, boats), garnish the owner's wages, levy any rental income he/she may have, and record a judgment lien against his/her real property.

Election Disputes. As provided for in Civil Code § 5145(c), owners may bring actions in small claims court for the following under Civil Code § 5105(a) and Civil Code § 5120. In addition to levying fines, small claims judges may grant equitable and injunctive relief. (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.220.)

  • access to association resources by a candidate or member advocating a point of view,
  • receipt of a ballot by a member,
  • the counting, tabulation, or reporting of, or access to, ballots for inspection,
  • review of ballots after tabulation

Records Inspection. Members may bring an action in small claims court to enforce their right to inspect and copy the association's records. If the court finds that the association unreasonably withheld records, the court may assess a penalty of up to $500 for the denial of each separate written request and order the production of records. (Civ. Code § 5235.) If owners bring an action in small claims that the court finds is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, the court can award costs to the association. (Civ. Code § 5235.)


Judge Pro Tem. Small claims courts frequently use pro tem judges to hear cases. "Pro tem" is short for the Latin phrase pro tempore, which means temporary. Accordingly, a "judge pro tem" refers to someone who has been a lawyer for at least 10 years and is trained to hear and decide small claims cases. The person temporarily serves in place of a regular judge. Because of budget constraints and the shortage of judges, small claims courts make extensive use of temporary judges.

Commissioner. A small claims commissioner is a step above a pro tem and a step below a judge. Instead of being volunteers who fill in from time-to-time, commissioners are paid a salary and hired full-time to hear small claims cases. Parties to a small claims action are not required to use commissioners or pro tem judges. If one of the parties does not want a temporary judge, they can ask the court to have a judge hear the case. That may require coming back on another day when a judge is available. As provided for in California Rules of Court, Rule 2.816(d): A party stipulates to a court-appointed temporary judge by either of the following:

(1) The party is deemed to have stipulated to the attorney serving as a temporary judge if the party fails to object to the matter being heard by the temporary judge before the temporary judge begins the proceeding; or

(2) The party signs a written stipulation agreeing that the matter may be heard by the temporary judge.

Section 259(d) of the Code of Civil Procedure provides that a commissioner has the power to act as temporary judge upon stipulation of the parties. Where a party fails or refuses to stipulate, actions of a commissioner are void, as in excess of jurisdiction. (Yetenekian v. Superior Court (1983) 140 Cal.App.3d 361.) Section 170.6 of the Code of Civil Procedure allows replacement of any judicial officer (pro tem, commissioner, or appointed judge) if timely made. Parties must object at their first opportunity in small claims court or the objection may be deemed waived, i.e., a stipulation may be implied by the parties’ conduct. (Foosadas v. Superior Court (2005) 130 Cal.App.4th 649.)


Erroneous Ruling. Even though a losing plaintiff cannot appeal, a party can move to vacate a small claims judgment on the basis of clerical error or an incorrect or erroneous legal basis. (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.725.) See Form SC-108. In addition, Form SC-135 can be used to file a motion to vacate a judgment. You can find the forms on the California Courts website.

Appealing a Decision. The plaintiff in a small claims action cannot appeal an adverse ruling. The defendant, however, has the right to appeal if done within 30 days. (Code Civ. Proc. § 116.710.) If a small claims decision is appealed, the matter is heard in Superior Court and each side may be represented by an attorney. The case is heard de novo, i.e., as if it had not been heard before and as if no decision previously had been rendered. There is no right of discovery and the matter is heard without a jury. The decision by the Superior Court judge is final and binding. There is no right of further appeal.

ASSISTANCE: Associations needing legal assistance can contact us. To stay current with issues affecting community associations, subscribe to the Davis-Stirling Newsletter.

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