Q. I lent my boyfriend my car when things were going good, then I caught him cheating so I cut him off. I would bust the windows out the car if it wasn’t mine! But he’s telling everyone I gave it to him and he’s going to fix it up, sell it, and make a lot of money. A friend of mine told me to go to the DMV and they could fix it so he couldn’t sell the car out from under me. So I went to the DMV, filled out a form, and thought I was good to go but then the fine print on the bottom of the form says “I understand that I must file a complaint or petition with the Superior Court requesting a preliminary injunction with a temporary restraining order to be served upon the Director of the Department of Motor Vehicles within 30 days.” What does this mean? How do I get an injunction against the DMV?
A. At least once a week, sometimes more, someone clutching a wrinkled piece of paper to their chest approaches the reference desk asking for “the form” to get an injunction against the DMV. Most of the time the situation is the same as yours: an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend has their car and won’t give it back, and they have obtained a 30-day courtesy stop from the DMV so the ex or whoever has their car can’t sell it. The “Courtesy Stop Request” form simply tells you to go to Court and get an injunction. When you go to the Courthouse, though, they refer you to the Sacramento County Public Law Library for help in obtaining the injunction. By then you are understandably frustrated, having spent a total of approximately six hours in line at the DMV, driving to the Courthouse downtown, finding a place, any place, to park, standing in line at the clerk’s window, walking to the Law Library, etc. When the reference librarian tells you there is not a simple form and that it is a complicated procedure most people burst into tears.
The instructions on the “Courtesy Stop Request” form are misleading, to say the least. First of all, there is no single “form” to file with the court to obtain an injunction. It takes many hours to prepare the necessary reams of paper you must file with the court. Second, an injunction is a temporary or permanent remedy in a larger lawsuit. You cannot just sue someone for an injunction in a vacuum; there must be an underlying lawsuit alleging one or more “causes of action” against the person from whom the injunction is sought. A “cause of action” is a set of facts that, if true, would entitle the person suing to be granted a judgment by the court. An injunction, on the other hand, is a remedy, not a cause of action. An injunction is an order to whoever is doing something wrong that they must stop doing that wrong thing. But there has to be a reason that something is wrong. For example, you could get an injunction against your neighbor to stop playing loud music at night. But first you would have to sue your neighbor for nuisance, which is the legal theory that makes it wrong for neighbors to keep each other up all night. You must ask yourself, “What is the legal theory that makes it wrong for the person who has my car to have it?”
That legal theory, or type of action, depends upon the circumstances in which the other person obtained possession of your car. Three common legal theories used to sue someone who has unauthorized possession of your car in order to obtain an injunction against the DMV are conversion, breach of contract, and for an equitable right of possession. In practice, a complaint might combine several different causes of action.
Conversion, according to Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary, is “the civil wrong (tort) of wrongfully using another's personal property as if it were one's own, holding onto another's property that accidentally comes into one's hands, or purposely giving the impression that the assets of another belong to oneself.” It is, more or less, the civil law equivalent to the crime of theft.
Breach of Contract is a legal claim that one party failed to perform as required under a valid agreement (written or oral) with the other party. For example you might say, "The roofer breached our contract by failing to complete the job." Possession is a legal claim very similar to conversion, but asks the court to find that the person suing is entitled to immediate and exclusive possession of the personal property involved, and orders the return of the property, plus the value of its temporary use.
Conversion and possession are most often used in situations like yours, when the vehicle is initially used with permission. You didn’t mention it, but often In these cases the owner of the vehicle has also gone to law enforcement to report the vehicle is stolen, only to receive the answer that "it's a civil matter," because the vehicle was initially obtained with permission.
Breach of Contract is most often used in cases when one person sells the vehicle to another, with the buyer ultimately failing to pay. The outcome of these lawsuits is determined by the exact wording of the agreement between the parties. Oftentimes agreements created by individuals fail to consider the possibility of buyer not paying, and as a result end up providing no remedy other than suing for the money owed.
If you are unlucky enough to find yourself in this situation, going to court provides a number of imperfect solutions to your problem. Depending upon the value of your car, you might consider filing a claim in Small Claims Court. Small Claims Court has the advantage of being very quick, with cases typically being heard in only a few months, and of being relatively inexpensive (the filing fee in Small Claims Court is presently $75 or less, with the filing fee set on a schedule based upon the claimed value of case). Small Claims Court for individuals is limited to cases of $7, 500 or less. The disadvantage of Small Claims Court is that it is limited to issuing money judgments, and generally cannot make judgments directing people to do things, like return your vehicle. Notwithstanding this, oftentimes people will agree to return property in lieu of a money judgment.
If return of the vehicle is the only acceptable option, you will be required to file an unlimited civil case in the Superior Court stating whatever causes of action support your contention that you are entitled to the return of the vehicle, naming both the person who has your vehicle and the California Department of Motor Vehicles as defendants. Although you are not seeking any monetary damages against the DMV, they must be named in the lawsuit because the court cannot issue an injunction preventing them from doing anything unless they are named as defendants. The "first appearance fee" in these cases is currently $355. Upon filing this lawsuit, a case number is assigned by the court. Once a case number is assigned, the next step is to file a motion asking the court to grant a temporary injunction preventing the transfer of the vehicle until the case is over. The fee for filing this motion is presently $40. It is very difficult to complete this entire process within the 30 days a courtesy stop is in effect. Even after the injunction is granted, it is necessary to continue litigating the case because the injunction is only a temporary remedy that remains in effect until the case is complete and the judgment is entered.
Assuming that a temporary injunction has been granted, or alternatively the DMV has agreed not to transfer the vehicle's title pending the end of the case, if you are entitled to immediate possession of the vehicle it is possible to file another motion requesting a Writ of Possession, which is an order directing the Sheriff to collect the property and deliver it to you. An additional $40 fee is charged for this motion. Fortunately, this process is simplified by the use of standardized forms. If a writ of possession is granted, you will be required to post an undertaking, or bond, with the court equal to the other side's potential interest in the vehicle, typically the full market value of the vehicle. This is accomplished by depositing cash with the court or using real property as collateral. This undertaking is to protect the other side in the event that you lose, to guarantee that they will not lose the value of the property that is being taken.
As mentioned above, there is not a standardized form ideally suited to any of these steps. The complaint and motions must be filed on 28-line pleading paper. It would take an attorney who was very experienced in this area at least 5 hours to complete all the necessary paperwork, and at $300 per hour that comes to $1,500! Although we have sample pleadings that you can copy and paste into our free pleading paper formatted for Sacramento County Superior Court, the average time it takes the average person to complete one step in this process is 20 hours. Unfortunately, our Civil Self-Help Center can’t help you with this process; it is too complicated and takes too long; if they helped one person with this type of claim they wouldn’t have time to help the other approximately 400 people they see every month.
So, before you try to obtain an injunction against the DMV yourself, ask yourself the following questions:
• How much is the car worth?
o More than the all filing fees; a bond or undertaking, if applicable; and 40 to 100 hours of your time?
• Do you want the money, or the car?
o If the person who has your car doesn’t have any money, you’ll want the car back. You can’t get blood from a turnip. But getting the actual car back costs more than getting a money judgment.
• What is your relationship with the person who has your car?
o Most of the time the two of you had a relationship, and if you are family, will continue to have a relationship. How will suing that person affect that relationship?
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