Small Claims Collection Actions

An association that has recorded an assessment lien against an owner’s property is permitted to enforce the lien through suing the owner personally and obtaining a money judgment (aka a “personal money judgment” or “PMJ”). (Civ. Code §§ 5700(a)5720(b); See also “Money Judgments (Assessment Collection).”) Once the association obtains the money judgment, the assessment lien is extinguished and the underlying debt of the owner merges into the judgment obtained by the association. (Diamond Heights Village Assn., Inc. v. Financial Freedom (2011) 196 Cal.App.4th 290, 301.)

The money judgment may be sought in Small Claims Court, subject to the limitations discussed below.

$5,000 Claim Limitation
Although an owner (a “natural person”) may sue an association in small claims for an amount up to $10,000, an association may not sue an owner in small claims for an amount exceeding $5,000. (Code Civ. Pro. §§ 116.220, 116.221.) The limitations on foreclosure of an assessment lien set forth in Civil Code Section 5720(b) (i.e., foreclosure may not be instituted until the amount of assessment debt totals at least $1,800) do not apply to small claims actions:

“An association that seeks to collect delinquent regular or special assessments of an amount less than [$1,800]…may not collect that debt through judicial or nonjudicial foreclosure, but may attempt to collect or secure that debt…[b]y a civil action in small claims court…The amount that may be recovered in small claims court to collect upon a debt for delinquent assessments may not exceed the jurisdictional limits of the small claims court…” (Civ. Code § 5720(b).)

$2,500 Claims Twice Per Year
An association may not file more than two (2) small claims actions per calendar year in which the amount demanded exceeds $2,500. (Code Civ. Pro. § 116.231(a).)

Appeal of Judgment
If a judgment is obtained by the association against the delinquent owner, the delinquent owner may appeal the judgment; however, the association (as the plaintiff) may not appeal an adverse judgment. (Code Civ. Pro. § 116.710.)

Attorney’s Fees on Appeal
The appeal on a small claims judgment is heard in Superior Court, where both parties may be represented by an attorney. However, even if the association prevails on appeal, it cannot recover all of its attorney’s fees, as the available fees which may be recovered are capped at $150. (Code Civ. Pro. § 116.780(c).)

Money Judgment
Once the association prevails and obtains a money judgment, it may enforce the money judgment through recording an abstract of judgment (a “judgment lien”) and through levying the delinquent owner’s wages or bank account. (See “Money Judgments (Assessment Collection).”)