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California Judgement Records

California judgment records, otherwise called "judgment files," are documents that bear the court's final decision in a legal action or proceeding. In California, such files are maintained as part of an official court record. Judgment records can be accessed by the public in paper and electronic formats through court clerk offices, courthouses, or other means provided by the state courts.

California judgment records typically contain a statement denoting the rights and duties of case parties, the litigants' names and case number. Like most California court records, judgment records also feature the name of the presiding judicial officer and court, the officer's signature, a summary of the pleadings, facts of the case, the court's findings of fact, and the date of entry of the judgment in a California judgment record.

What is a Judgment?

The term "judgment" is defined in the California Code of Civil Procedure, section 577, as the "final determination of the obligations of the parties in an action or proceeding." Simply put, it is an official explanation that the court gives after a hearing that specifies the respective rights and obligations of the persons involved in a lawsuit and why the court chose to make that order. The term includes any judgment, decree, or signed order rendered by a court of law upon the conclusion of a case.

There are several kinds of judgments that can be dispensed at a judicial proceeding. Regardless, a competent judge must give the final decision for it to be valid. The decision can be made verbally or in writing, either at a court hearing or at a later date. Oral judgments can be made when a quick decision is required or to reduce the court's caseload. On the other hand, written judgments are more prevalent in complex cases, e.g., in matters to be decided by an appellate court. When a court renders a judgment, it only treats the issues raised in court based on the arguments and evidence presented before a judge. No judgment can extend beyond the facts of a case or bind any person who is not a party to the case.

California Judgment Laws

California's judgment laws are outlined in the Code of Civil Procedure (CCP). These statutes govern the giving and entering of judgments in the judicial system, as well as the procedures by which plaintiffs and defendants can collect their judgments.

What is a California Judgment Lien?

A California judgment lien is an encumbrance or security interest placed on a person's real or personal property to satisfy a judgment. Sometimes called an "abstract of judgment," it is exacted by the winning party (or "judgment creditor") of a lawsuit to collect what is owed from a losing party (or "judgment debtor").

This type of lien is involuntary or nonconsensual. That is, the creditor does not need the debtor's consent to attach the lien to their property. It is more popular in cases where the court awards monetary damages to one side of a lawsuit and the other side fails to pay up. As no court can collect a judgment debt for the creditor, it is up to that party to ensure that the debtor pays the judgment. One way to guarantee this payment is a judgment lien.

By placing the lien, if the debtor fails to pay the judgment, the creditor can recover the owed sum from the sale of the debtor's property or assets (usually real estate).

What is a California Summary Judgment?

A California summary judgment is a final decree which a state court renders without a trial. This judgment is made upon the motion of a case party when there is no reason for a case to proceed to trial, and the party is entitled to a judgment in their favor as a matter of law.

A summary judgment can be requested by the plaintiff or defendant of a lawsuit, but in many cases, the plaintiff moves for the judgment. This typically happens when there are no disputed facts (no genuine or triable issue of material fact) or the defendant has no adequate defense. A summary judgment can be for a monetary award or it can order a case party to do something.

Once this judgment is given, it is not possible to request another hearing in a trial court. However, the judgment can be appealed to a higher court.

What is a Summary Judgment Motion in California?

When a party to a lawsuit asks the court for a summary judgment (i.e., to render a ruling in their favor without conducting a trial), California calls it a "motion for summary judgment." According to the state's Code of Civil Procedure, section 437c, any case party can file this motion when a civil action or proceeding has no merit or defense.

Per the law, a litigant can file a motion for summary judgment only after 60 days have passed from both parties' general appearance in the action or proceeding, except otherwise directed by the court. After filing, a notice of the motion must be served on other parties at least 75 days before the date scheduled for the motion's hearing. However, the 75-day deadline will be increased by the following days if the service is done by regular mail, and:

  • The other party's address is within California - 5 days.
  • The other party's address is outside the state but within the United States - 10 days.
  • The other party's address is outside the country - 20 days.

For other delivery methods such as fax, express mail, or another overnight delivery method, the 75-day deadline will be increased by only two court days.

In California, hearings scheduled upon a litigant's motion for summary judgment are held no later than 30 days before the original trial date, except the court provides otherwise. After the hearing, the court will grant or deny the motion. Per section 437c (c), the court will grant the moving party's request if it is proven that the other side truly has no case against them, either because the cause of action cannot be established or no defense exists. As such, proceeding to trial is unnecessary.

It should be noted that the ruling entered by the court after the filing of a summary judgment motion cannot be appealed to a higher court, as it is not a final judgment but an order. However, the final judgment which will be rendered upon such an order is appealable. One valid reason to appeal a summary judgment is if there are indeed disputed facts that require a trial to resolve.

California Judgment Record Search

The California Rules of Court offers public access to unsealed and nonconfidential court records. One such record is a California judgment record.

For a person who is not a party to a suit, there are several ways to search for a judgment record in California. An individual has the option of going to the applicable courthouse (the venue where the hearing was held) to use public access computers or using their smartphone, tablet, or computer to access the Case Records Search tool provided by each local state court. The case search tools of the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court can be accessed from the homepage of California courts' website.

However, remote access is not always available to the public. A record may be sealed, confidential, or barred from electronic dissemination. In those cases, while a case party may view the record remotely, others will have to visit the courthouse to obtain them through the public terminals—and access is not always guaranteed.

How Do I Look Up a Judgment in California?

To look up a judgment in California, an interested party can:

  • Visit the courthouse during regular business hours to use the public access computers, typically located in a lobby in the building.
  • Visit the Records Department or clerk's office of a court to request to view or copy the judgment.
  • Fill a request form to obtain copies via court-approved methods, e.g., postal mail and email. For example, the Santa Barbara County Superior Court offers a copy request form on its website for record requests, which can be submitted to the court's Records Division by mail, email, or in person.
  • Use the Case Search portals offered by the courts to access a judgment record remotely. These portals can be found on each court's website.

The Find a Court tool can be used to locate the website of any court. This tool also provides the locations and contact information of the courthouses in the state.

What Happens if You Have a Judgment Against You in California?

When a California court renders a judgment, that judgment is binding upon all parties involved in the litigation. The party who lost the case or had a judgment entered against them becomes the judgment debtor. Such a person will be liable to pay damages or comply with any injunctive orders issued to the winning side by the hearing court.

Willingly refusing to satisfy the judgment does not cancel a debtor's liability. Instead, it can cause the creditor to take specific legal steps against such a person to enforce the judgment—the execution of which can make the debtor's life uncomfortable. Such actions include placing liens on the debtor's real estate, seizing the debtor's assets, wage garnishments, causing the suspension of the debtor's driver's or professional license(s), etc.

Of course, in many cases, a debtor has the option to appeal the final judgment to have a higher court review and possibly overturn the judgment. However, the debtor must have a legal basis to appeal the case—merely disliking the judgment is not a sufficient reason in any scenario.

How Do I Find Out if I Have Any Judgments Against Me in California?

Anyone can easily find out if a judgment has been entered against them in California. All they have to do is contact the clerk of the court's office to request that information or check a court's records, as explained above. Also, an individual can check their mail to see if any notice of entry of judgment was sent to them by the court.

How Long Does a Judgment Stay on Your Record?

In California, a judgment is part of a court's permanent record. As such, no court procedure allows a case party to request removal, as commonly seen with criminal convictions.

Nevertheless, a judgment may appear on a person's credit report for 7 years from the entry date or until the applicable statute of limitations expires, whichever is longer. This can make it difficult for a person to get financing, a credit card, utilities, or rent an apartment. However, once a judgment is paid, whether in whole or because the creditor agreed to a lesser sum, it can be removed from a credit report by obtaining a satisfaction of judgment. Upon obtaining this proof, the debtor must send it to the three leading credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, to update their report.

How to Enforce a Judgment in California

A judgment gives one side of a lawsuit the authority to recover money or property from the other. In California, no court can collect this award for the winner of the suit. The responsibility of enforcing the judgment rests solely on the creditor. In some cases, the judgment debtor will immediately pay what is owed. In others, the creditor may need to take action to ensure the satisfaction of the judgment.

There are several ways to enforce a judgment in California upon a losing party's failure to satisfy it. Some of these methods include:

  • Collecting from the debtor's property:
    • Wage garnishment
    • Placing a levy of the debtor's safe deposit box or bank account
    • Attaching a lien to the debtor's real property (home, land, or building) or personal property (e.g., car)
    • Placing a lien on a lawsuit that the judgment debtor has against another person
    • Obtaining a writ of execution. For example, a till tap or keeper levy. More information on the process for executing such levies can be obtained from the courts' More Ways to Collect page.
  • Suspending the debtor's professional license or driver's license.
  • Seizing and selling the debtor's assets. When more information is required about the debtor's assets to seize them, the creditor can also initiate a hearing in which the debtor will be obliged to disclose their assets, owned properties, and income. This is also known as an "order for examination" or "debtor's examination". Failing to appear for this hearing can cause the court to issue a bench warrant for the debtor's arrest. This can lead to a finding of civil contempt and ultimately result in a fine or jail time.
  • Reaching out to the debtor: It may be possible to negotiate a lesser sum or installment payment plan.

How to Collect a Judgment in California

To collect a judgment in California is to enforce it. "Collect" and "enforce" are both used to refer to the liability of the losing party in a lawsuit. Despite the expression used, a creditor must use legal means to collect a judgment. Harassing the debtor, calling the debtor outside 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., making false statements, or telling a third party about the debt, are illegal tactics that should not be used to collect a judgment. Anyone who does so may be liable to criminal and civil penalties.

Typically, a judgment creditor can begin collecting a judgment immediately, as long as there is no order stopping the enforcement of the judgment due to an appeal, bankruptcy proceeding, or another legal case. However, there are special rules regarding small claims judgments. In those cases, there is a stay period of 30 days after the entry of judgment before a creditor can begin collection efforts.

More information on the collection/enforcement process in California can be obtained from the Collecting Your Judgment guide or other online resource pages published by the California Courts. Nevertheless, most local courts dedicate sections (usually self-help sections) on their websites to judgment collection procedures and practices.

What Happens if a Defendant Does Not Pay a Judgment in California?

A defendant's inaction after the entry of a judgment can trigger unpleasant consequences in that person's life. Therefore, every defendant is advised to pay their judgment as soon as they receive notice of it, or file a notice of appeal or motion to vacate the judgment within 30 days of the entry of judgment if they have legal grounds to oppose it, whichever is applicable to their case. Otherwise, that person may face asset seizures, wage garnishments, and the suspension of their professional licenses, among other repercussions.

Furthermore, every day a person delays payment, it results in post-judgment costs and interest. The amount owed to the creditor rises daily as all judgments in California accrue interest each year. Also, the judgment creditor may obtain a court order mandating the defendant to reimburse them for "reasonable and necessary" costs spent during the collection process.

Lastly, the existence of such unpaid judgments can ruin a person's credit score. As such, if that person wants to get a loan (e.g., mortgage) or achieve other financial goals, it may become more difficult until the judgment is paid in full or as agreed upon by the involved parties.

What Personal Property Can Be Seized in a Judgment in California?

Naturally, judgment creditors have the right to take a debtor's property to enforce a judgment in California, including their income, assets, and real or personal property. However, certain personal property and income are exempt from collection to satisfy a judgment under the United States Code and California Code of Civil Procedure. As such, a judgment creditor cannot levy, seize, or demand those items from a judgment debtor.

Typically, when a sheriff or marshal (levying officers) seizes property on behalf of a creditor, the debtor will get a Notice of Levy packet. If an asset is protected by the exemption laws, the debtor can file the Claim of Exemption form received in the packet with that officer, provided it is done within 15 days of receiving the notice by hand-delivery or 20 days of receiving the notice by mail.

A list of personal property exemptions can be found in forms EJ-156 (exempted dollar amounts) and EJ-155 (exempted assets).

California Judgment Interest Rate

The judgment interest rate in California is 10% per annum (Code of Civil Procedure, section 685.010). Any unpaid judgment amount will accumulate interest at this rate each year until a judgment debtor pays it off.

However, suppose a judgment creditor renews a judgment. In that case, the accrued interest will be added to the owed amount and, subsequently, interest will be assessed on the recalculated amount (the former unpaid amount + former interest).

What is a Default Judgment?

A default judgment is rendered in a legal proceeding because a defendant failed to answer a summons and complaint or appear for a hearing. For a plaintiff, this judgment is an automatic win as the court will most likely give that side the amount they are asking for. However, if there is a legitimate reason for defaulting, a defendant may be able to vacate or set aside the judgment and revive the case.

How to File a Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment in California

In California default judgments are typically issued when the defendant is unaware of the civil suit, and as a result, does not respond appropriately. Fortunately, it is possible to set aside (cancel) a default judgment in California. Upon setting aside a judgment, the court will grant the defendant a new trial or approve a new date for the trial. The process of setting aside this default is also known as "vacating a judgment" in California. (See below.)

How to File a Motion to Vacate Judgment in California

To vacate a judgment in California means to set it aside, and vice versa. The state refers more to the process of canceling a judgment as "vacate" rather than "set aside." However, the result is the same regardless of the term used: the judgment—typically rendered because a party failed to attend court—will be canceled.

A judgment can be set aside or vacated by a California court upon the request of a case party. One popular method to vacate a default judgment in California is to file a motion under the Code of Civil Procedure, section 473 (b) by citing mistake, surprise, inadvertence, or excusable neglect. Examples of legal grounds applicable in this scenario include:

  • The plaintiff misled the court into believing the defendant had been served.
  • Non-appearance of the defendant due to a disabling illness.
  • Abandonment by the defendant's attorney.

Here, the defendant has 180 days (6 months) to file a motion to vacate with the court.

Another way to vacate a judgment can be found under the Code of Civil Procedure, section 473.5. Per this law, if the service of summons did not result in the actual, timely notice of a defendant (i.e., the defendant was unaware of the lawsuit), the party may move to set aside the judgment and request time to prepare a defense. Here, the defendant has 180 days (6 months) from the date the notice of entry of default judgment was mailed to them, or 2 years after the date of entry of the default judgment, to file a motion to vacate with the court.

Furthermore, the Code of Civil Procedure, section 473 (d), allows defendants to file a motion to vacate any void judgment. An example of a void judgment is one rendered by a court without subject-matter jurisdiction or without the proper or actual service of summons on a defendant. The law does not specify a time limit to vacate a void judgment.

A judge may only set aside or vacate a judgment in situations where the moving party can present clear and convincing evidence, and the motion is filed within the required time limit. As a result, it may be sensible to hire a lawyer to assist with the process. However, the courts also publish guides for certain pro se (self-represented) defendants who wish to file a motion to vacate or set aside their judgments.

How to Remove an Abstract of Judgment in California

An "abstract of judgment" is a legal form that a judgment creditor files to place a lien on a debtor's real property (land, building, etc.) or pending lawsuit to recover a debt. In California, this form is titled EJ-001 and can be obtained online from any court's website or a local clerk of court's office. After filling the form, it must be filed with the clerk of the court that rendered the money judgment. The clerk will certify and issue the form after the creditor pays the relevant fee.

When the lien is against real property, the abstract of judgment will be recorded with a county recorder’s office in every county that a debtor owns or will own a real estate. This places a legal claim on a debtor's property so that when the property is sold, the creditor will be able to collect the judgment debt.

The only way to remove a lien created by an abstract of judgment in California is to pay what is owed to the creditor. The court is not involved in any legal collection processes. As such, unless a statute of limitations releases a lien, only the creditor can remove this lien by filing an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100). This can only happen if the debtor satisfies the judgment. Form EJ-100 must be recorded in every county where the judgment was filed to release the judgment lien.

Any lien created by an abstract of judgment lasts as long as the judgment for which it was made. That is, it is effective for 10 years from the date of entry of the judgment, and it can be renewed for an additional 10 years (Code of Civil Procedure, sections 697.310 and 697.320). Once the judgment expires, so does the abstract of judgment.

How Long is a Judgment Good for in California

A judgment is good for 10 years in California. After that, it becomes void, and the losing party will not be liable to any more debt. However, the judgment creditor can extend this judgment for another 10 years.

California Judgment Statute of Limitations Law

The statute of limitations laws governing judgments in California is established under the Code of Civil Procedure, sections 683.010 to 683.050 (period of enforceability) and sections 683.110 to 683.220 (renewal of judgments).

Under these laws, all judgments rendered in California have a statute of limitations of 20 years. The judgments have an initial deadline of 10 years, after which they become dormant. However, judgment creditors have the right to renew judgments for another 10 years before the initial time limit expires.