06/27/2019 by W. Thomas Chappell
Community associations are not immune from being sued or having to file suit. Community associations frequently are in court for issues such as the collection of unpaid assessments from residents, disputes with contractors, and covenant and rule enforcement.
Many of these disputes are handled in the general district court of the relevant locality. In Virginia, general district courts exclusively handle civil cases involving amounts in dispute $4,500 or less. Cases with amounts in controversy of greater than $4,500 and not in excess of $25,000 may be brought in either the general district court or the circuit court in the relevant locality. Cases with amounts in dispute in excess of $25,000 must be filed in the circuit court in the relevant locality. General district courts also have jurisdiction to decide cases pursuant to the Condominium Act and Property Owners’ Association Act to grant injunctive relief to collect violation charges and correct violations.
Civil matters in general district court are typically started by the filing of a “warrant in debt” or a “motion for judgment.” The warrant in debt or motion for judgment must be then “served” on the other party. The law requires that the other side be notified in the way provided by the law that they have been sued.
At what is known as the “first return date,” the plaintiff or counsel appear in court. If the defendant does not contest the lawsuit, then the court may enter default judgment in the plaintiff’s favor. If the defendant contests the allegations, the court will set a trial date typically several months later and order the Plaintiff to file a Bill of Particulars and the Defendant to file a Grounds of Defense by certain dates.
A “Bill of Particulars” is a document where a Plaintiff explains why it contends it is owed the amount sought. A “Grounds of Defense” is a document where a Defendant explains why he, she or it does not owe the amount sought. It is important that parties timely file a Bill of Particulars or Grounds of Defense, as failure to do so could result in an adverse ruling without an opportunity to present your case.
After the filing of these documents, the case will then proceed to trial. Each side will have an opportunity to present opening argument, to offer witnesses and exhibits in support of their position, to cross-examine witnesses presented by the other side, and to give a closing argument. Then, the judge will render a decision based on the evidence before him or her. The rules of evidence apply in general district court.
If a party is unhappy with the judge’s decision and the amount in controversy is greater than $20.00, there is an automatic right of appeal to the circuit court in the relevant locality by filing a notice of appeal and posting an appeal bond within ten days of the general district court’s decision. The trial in circuit court will be “de novo”, a new trial.
General District Court provides a relatively swift timeline for adjudicating cases. It is a court “not of record” and there is no discovery (interrogatories, requests for production, requests for admission, depositions), thus streamlining the time and cost of proceeding.