Pennsylvania Small Claims Court
The Pennsylvania State Court system is comprised of five courts: the Minor Judiciary/Magisterial District Court (small claims court), Common Pleas, Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and Supreme Court. This article will provide to the consumer a brief overview of civil lawsuits in small claims court.
Small Claims Actions
Magisterial district justices (also known as MDJs) hear a wide variety of cases involving criminal complaints and prosecutions, landlord-tenant disputes, and general civil complaints, such as collection matters and claims for breach of contract. While not as common, a Magisterial District Judge may also decide personal injury cases or intentional torts (such as conversion, nuisance, theft, assault and harassment). A magisterial district judge can hear and dispose of claims that seek money in amounts less than $12,000.00. If your complaint is civil (that is, it is not criminal) and you do not seek more than $12,000.00, you can file a complaint with the magisterial district justice having personal jurisdiction over the parties. You can appear in small claims court without an attorney, as many parties often do.
Personal jurisdiction-quite simply-means that you must go to the magisterial district court where either you or the opposing party are from, or where events which form the basis of your complaint occurred. So, for example, if Smith agrees to perform serves for Jones at a specified rate per day, and Jones does not pay Smith, a can bring suit against Jones for up to $12,000.00 in the magisterial district court where Smith or where Jones lives, or at a third location where either party’s performance under the contract was due.
Filing a Complaint
A plaintiff (that is, the person seeking relief) may initiate an action by filing a complaint. The complaint must be written and it must be filed with (that is physically delivered to the offices of) the magisterial district court. The websites for most magisterial district courts, and the website for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) maintains forms for the filing of civil complaints (as well as landlord/tenant complaints) in small claims court (http://www.pacourts.us/Forms/Default.htm). You may also visit your local magisterial district court to receive a hard copy form complaint, fill it out, and return it with the filing fees necessary to initiate the action (http://www.pacourts.us/T/SpecialCourts/MDJList.htm). The fees for the action vary depending on the type of action, the number of parties, and other factors, and you may find the fee by calling the office of the magisterial district justice prior to filing. Next, the court will serve (that is, deliver) a copy of the complaint to the defendant(s) and set a hearing date. At any time before the hearing date, the defendant(s) may also go to the magisterial district judge to file a complaint against the plaintiff (called a counterclaim) if the defendant has claims against the plaintiff.
At the time and place set for the hearing, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence (it must be found more likely than not), the substance of his claims. The judge is bound by the rules of evidence, except that a bill, estimate, receipt, or statement of account that appears to have been made in the regular course of business may be introduced in evidence by any party without regard to evidence of its truth, accuracy or authenticity. Notice of Judgment and the Right to Appeal At the conclusion of plaintiff’s case, the defendant has the opportunity to present evidence in defense of his case and, if applicable, in support of a counterclaim. By law, judgment is handed down at either the conclusion of the hearing or within five (5) days from the hearing. The magisterial district court will either physically present or mail to the parties written notice of the judgment. Printed on the notice is information concerning the right of either party to appeal the judgment to the county Court of Common Pleas. An appeal to the Court of Common Pleas may be taken by either party within thirty (30) days of the date of judgment by filing a notice of appeal and paying the filing fees with the Office of the Prothonotary in the county in which the magisterial district judgment has been entered. If no appeal is taken within thirty (30) days the judgment is final. If an appeal is taken, the case begins anew, as if the magisterial district action had never occurred. Importantly, while a corporation or other entity may proceed unrepresented in front of a magisterial district judge (that is, without the assistance of counsel) a corporation (or other entity, such as a LLC) may not proceed without counsel in the court of common pleas.
The attorneys at Cunningham, Chernicoff & Warshawsky, P.C.. are available to represent you at your magisterial district justice hearing and/or appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. For magisterial district justice hearings, our attorneys can often offer their services at a flat rate, which can be quoted upon request. The advice of an attorney, even in small claims court, is valuable, as while the amount of money at stake may be small, the legal issues can be complex. For more information, please contact Cunningham, Chernicoff & Warshawsky, P.C.. at 717-260-3527.