A small claims suit is a lawsuit where you don't have to have a lawyer and it doesn't involve large amonts of money. It is faster, cheaper, less formal, and all around a better choice than filing in civil court. You can only claim damages for money you have alrady spent (but in California the courts will now fine the association and give damages to the plaintiff for some offenses). You cannot ask for the return of property or the completion of services. Except for California, you cannot ask the judge to make the directors give you records. You can't get emotional damages or expenses for traveling to court.
Small claims might work if you think a penalty, interest charge or new assessment was waged against you and others without proper authority. In Florida an association member used to be able to get records from small claims but since 2007, disputes regarding records must be mediated. Because of homeowner advocates in California, such as the Center for California Homeowner Association Law, laws have been enacted allowing homeowners to use small claims for very specific disputes such as acquiring records and having elections looked at. Other groups are fighting for the same rights in other states, so you must check your state's small claims statutes and CID laws to see what small claims rights you may have. In Utah, although CIDs are not specifically listed in the code, the purpose of small claims court is defined in the law itself: The hearing in a small claims action has the sole object of dispensing speedy justice between the parties.
What exactly can you file on in small claims court?
Your association can file in small claims court to collect delinquent assessments, fines and fees on you and you can file on them! Small claims is covered under state law and every state has slightly different rules (see links on right side bar). Some states allow you to take an attorney, although most don't. Basically, small claims court was designed to resolve disputes without counsel.
Warning Warning Warning
Do not sue individuals on the board. Sue the Association/Corporation or the Management Firm. You sue the corporation and serve the papers to the registered agent who will be listed for your association at the state Department of Commerce under 'Corporations.' If you sue the wrong party (i.e. the president instead of the association) you may lose on that point alone!
And another warning: Few judges know all the ins and outs of association law or all the laws that relate (contract law, CID code, corporate code, debt collections, discrimination, housing, consumer protection, etc). Therefore it is prudent to bring copies of all the statutes you cite and rely on them to prove your case. Hand them to the judge with the evidence package.
You can follow the links on the side bar for speicfic information and/or get a more thorough explanation of small claims proceedures from HOA Warrior ($4.99).