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Associations: Tips on representing yourself in court against association lawyers

Question: I'm representing myself in a contentious litigation with my homeowners association. The board has a powerful, well-known law firm — a machine burying me in paper. I can't keep up. I was not served or given notice of a hearing last week and therefore did not appear.

The law firm told the judge that they called me several times and also called an attorney I employed a decade ago on an unrelated matter. That lawyer, who no longer represents me, said he got the call late and was unable to contact me until the day after the hearing.

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Association lawyers also have a process server who verifies that notice was "timely" served on me when, in fact, the person did not serve me at all. What are my options?

Answer: Because you're up against lawyers who have considerable experience and resources, representing yourself means this becomes a full-time job. In complex and protracted litigation, you need an attorney to represent your interests. Or try looking for a lawyer willing to assist with research and strategy without filing an appearance in your case.

Success in litigation is based on legal knowledge, resources and organization. Deadlines arise frequently, necessitating quick and timely responses. You are responsible for monitoring what the other side is doing and filing. You must know all applicable deadlines for your case and how to calendar them.

Regularly check the court's online docket but also go to the courthouse and physically review court files at the filing window. Some filings take more than a week to show up online, a risk you can't take.

Just because a process server says you were served doesn't mean you were. The same goes for statements made by the other party's attorneys. If a judge makes a ruling at an ex parte hearing based on false information, you can ask the judge to vacate that ruling and even seek sanctions from the individuals who lied to the court.

However, if a ruling has been made, you need to get started immediately. There are strict deadlines for granting the type of relief you need to fight these improper actions. Reserving hearing dates and filing motions either to vacate a ruling or reconsider a ruling are a good place to start.

Compile as much evidence as possible showing you were not given actual notice. Obtain a declaration from your previous attorney stating your representation had ended before the association's purported notice was served. Then show you were not where a process server claims you were.

California Code of Civil Procedure Section 128.7 allows you to request sanctions against a lawyer who files a motion for an improper purpose or based on knowingly false information.

A process server who prepares or signs false proofs of service is subject to sanctions and liability for abuse of process. If this process server is registered his or her registration may be either suspended or revoked in connection with these proceedings.

Also, put your former lawyers on notice that they no longer represent you, and file a Substitution of Attorney form with the court. That way, there's no question that the former lawyer cannot accept service on your behalf. You're always free to re-hire that attorney, but at least you prevent situations like this from recurring. The key is to act with lightning speed.

Zachary Levine, a partner at Wolk & Levine, a business and intellectual property law firm, co-wrote this column. Vanitzian is an arbitrator and mediator. Send questions to Donie Vanitzian, JD, P.O. Box 10490, Marina del Rey, CA 90295 or noexit@mindspring.com.

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