In general, conversion of property is a civil cause of action that occurs when a person intentionally and substantially interferes with the personal property of another without permission. Alternatively, it may also refer to when a person without authority intentionally takes or deprives a person of possession of their personal property. Conversion is the civil counterpart of the crime of larceny (i.e., theft of personal property).

Specifically, under California conversion laws, an act of conversion is explicitly defined as, “the wrongful exercise of dominion over the property of another.” In California, it is not necessary that the defendant physically takes the property in question away. Instead, the plaintiff will only need to prove that the defendant assumed control and/or ownership over that property, or has altered it in a way that causes it to no longer be of use to the plaintiff.

Additionally, it should also be noted that although the defendant must intentionally or knowingly convert the personal property, there is no need to show that there was wrongful intent or motive behind their actions. For example, a defendant can be sued for conversion for taking home a laptop that they reasonably or genuinely believed belonged to them.  

What is a Conversion?

In California, a plaintiff may seek both civil relief and criminal prosecution of an individual who has converted their property. However, since it is up to the local prosecutor to decide whether or not to press charges and file a criminal lawsuit, the plaintiff can only sue for damages using the civil court system. They can do this by proving that the defendant was responsible for conversion of their property.

According to California law, the elements of conversion are as follows:

  • The plaintiff had a right to the property in question or had ownership over that property at the time of conversion; 
  • The defendant intentionally interfered with or deprived the plaintiff of their property without their consent; and
  • The defendant’s actions caused the plaintiff to suffer damages (i.e., the loss of the property) as a result.

Can Real Property Be Converted in California?

Conversion actions are strictly limited to personal property or chattels (i.e., item of property other than real estate). Thus, regardless of where a conversion case is filed, real property cannot be the subject of a conversion action in California or in any other jurisdiction in the United States. 

For example, a plaintiff may never sue for conversion of their house. Instead, they would have to file a claim for trespass. However, if a defendant made off with the plaintiff’s towel rack or window coverings, then the plaintiff could sue for conversion because these items are considered fixtures. For reference, a fixture is an item that was once removable, but is now attached to real property in such a way that the item is considered unremovable. 

Money and other financial instruments may also be converted in California, but only if they are identifiable by a specific sum. This type of property will be discussed in further detail in the section below.

Finally, intellectual property rights (e.g., copyrights, patents, trademarks, etc.) are also not typically subject to conversion. However, they may be if they have been merged into a tangible form of property like an insurance policy or as part of company stocks.

Can Money and Other Financial Instruments Be Converted in California?

Money and other financial instruments (e.g., stocks, bonds, various other securities, etc.) can all be converted in California. To bring a claim for the conversion of money, the plaintiff must be able to identify a specific sum or amount. For instance, if a plaintiff’s stock certificate was stolen, then they would be able to sue for conversion.

As is evident from the above information, it is possible to convert property in other ways aside from physically taking it away from a person. Some examples of how conversion may extend to scenarios that require more than just a physical taking include: 

  • Altering the property so drastically that it can no longer be used;
  • Destroying the property in its entirety;
  • Failing to deliver the collected funds of another (e.g., brokerage account); and
  • Refusing to record and transfer ownership after a sale. 

Do I Still Have a Valid Conversion Claim if I Have Regained My Property?

A plaintiff who manages to regain their property before taking legal action will still have a valid conversion claim for the purposes of bringing a lawsuit. Despite already recovering the property, the reason why it is still possible for the plaintiff to sue for conversion is because such lawsuits are premised on the idea that the plaintiff’s right and possession to the property was violated. 

In other words, it has nothing to do with the fact that the property itself was converted. Conversion is a cause of action that is concerned with depriving someone of their right to use and possess their own property. This is why the plaintiff can still sue even after they have regained their property. 

What Kind of Remedies Do I Have for My Conversion Claim?

The most common type of remedies offered to victims of property conversion are monetary damages that are equal to the full value of the property. The value of the property will be calculated based on what the fair market value of the property was at the time the conversion took place. In some instances, plaintiffs to a conversion case may also be able to receive some amount of special damages. 

In addition, the plaintiff may be able to recover fair compensation for the reasonable amount of time and money put forth to reclaim their property. 

Finally, in extreme cases, the plaintiff may request relief in the form of punitive damages and/or emotional distress damages. For example, if the converted property held sentimental value for the plaintiff (e.g., an irreplaceable family heirloom), then they may be able to recover damages for emotional distress. Again, these last two forms of remedies are rarely issued by a court in such cases. 

Are there any Defenses to Conversion?

A defendant being sued for conversion may be able to raise one of several possible defenses. Defenses to the crime of conversion in California include:

  • Self-defense or defense of another;
  • Authority of law;
  • Statute of limitations;
  • Consent or permission; 
  • Lack of value;
  • Abandonment of property; and/or
  • Privilege.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Conversion Claim?

If someone has intentionally interfered with and/or deprived you of your property, then you may want to speak to a local real estate lawyer about your potential options for legal recourse. 

An experienced real estate lawyer will be able to assess the facts of your case and can use their findings to predict the possible outcomes should you choose to file a lawsuit. Your lawyer can also help you to prepare and file a case against the party who converted your property. In addition, your lawyer can apprise you of your rights under the law and can discuss the kinds of remedies you may receive if your case is successful.

Finally, if you cannot reach a settlement or the defendant refuses to settle out of court, then your lawyer will also be able to provide representation in court.