I Was Informed There's a Judgment Against Me But I Never Heard of Any Lawsuit
It's relatively unusual for a person who had no notice that they had been named as a defendant in a civil action to be informed that there is a civil judgment against them. Recently I prepared a general description of what a person who got that startling information might want to know. I have decided to share it here.
There are general rules that apply to every civil lawsuit. The general rule is that a person must be given notice of a civil lawsuit that has been filed against them by being served with a summons and a copy of the complaint. If the plaintiff can prove to the court that despite making significant efforts to locate a defendant he has been unable to do so the court can approve service by publication of a notice in a newspaper. Service by publication is relatively rare. If a person has a stable home or work address it is very unlikely that a court would give permission for service by publication. If a lawsuit names a person who does not live or work in California there is a complex rule that determines whether a California court can have jurisdiction over that person. A very similar rule applies to determining whether an out-of-state court can have jurisdiction over a person who lives in California. How that rule applies can only be determined by an attorney who has been consulted by the person and is providing legal advice based upon the specific facts of the situation. If the suit was filed in another state the person may need to consult an attorney who is licensed to practice law in that state. The rules for serving the summons and complaints upon corporations and other business entities, such as partnerships, are different from the rules for individuals.
If a person has been informed that there is a California civil judgment against him the most important information which that person needs is the name of County in which the lawsuit was filed. The California court system operates on a county basis and each county has the files for civil lawsuits which have been brought in that county. County court clerks' offices do not have the files for civil lawsuits that were filed in other counties. It is extremely helpful to also have the case number assigned to that case. Each County uses a separate numbering system. If a person has been informed of a judgment against them through a document from the court or a document from an attorney representing a party in the lawsuit, both the name of the County and the Case Number should be on that document. Any document from the court or from an attorney representing a party in the lawsuit should have the County and Case Number on it.
If a person has learned of an alleged judgment against them by being told orally about it, the person should ask whoever told them for the name of the County and the Case Number. Even if the individual does not have the case number he or she may know the name of the County which is the most important piece of information. There is an exception to this rule. If for ANY reason a person believes that the individual who told them of the judgment might be potentially dangerous to them, they should avoid all contact with that individual and consult an attorney about how to get information about the alleged judgment. In addition, if the person believes that there is ANY possibility that someone poses a threat to them they should get advice about how to handle that situation. The fastest way to do this may be to call a domestic violence hotline (a local one if possible). Even if the potential threat does not arise from a domestic situation but from a business relationship or even a stranger the hotline may be able to suggest some helpful precautions and refer the person to a source of information about how to handle their specific situation. If any specific threats have been made or if the person believes that violence is likely, he or she should contact the police. It is very, very, very, very rare for a civil lawsuit all by itself to lead to any violence. Becoming involved in a civil lawsuit is not by itself a reason to seek advice about possible violence. However a person knows more about their contacts and communications with another party than an outsider does, and they should rely upon their own judgment based upon all of the other party's conduct and communications, not just those related to the lawsuit. If the feeling of possible danger arises after the person has hired an attorney, he or she should consult their attorney about it as soon as possible.
A person who has been told that there is a California civil judgment against them even though they were not aware that anyone had sued them and had not been served with any notice should consult an attorney about the situation. This should be done as soon as possible because the first six months after a judgment is entered are the best time to address the situation. Although California attorneys are licensed by the state bar, the counties have voluntary bar associations. Some of those bar associations will provide referrals to members of the public who are seeking legal advice. In addition quite a few attorneys offer a free initial consultation. This consultation will often be enough to allow a person to learn whether or not they need to hire an attorney to represent them. Having the County and the Case Number of the lawsuit will very helpful for the consultation. Any documents that are connected with the alleged lawsuit and judgment, or with the event or contract that the lawsuit is based on, should be brought to the consultation.
Whether or not information about civil lawsuits filed in that county is available online varies from county to county. It may be possible to look at a list of the documents that have been filed in a lawsuit or even the actual documents themselves through the individual court's website. Court files can also be read in person at the court clerk's office. Having copies of some or all of the documents in the court file will be helpful when consulting an attorney. Reading the court file will usually help a person figure out who sued them and what event the lawsuit is based on. The facts that the person knows about that person and that event will permit an attorney to provide specific legal advice. However someone who is not an attorney should not rely upon their interpretation of the documents for an understanding of the legal situation. Legal documents, especially in lawsuits, use very specific legal terms and phrasing that can easily be misunderstood by non-lawyers.