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 a brief overview of civil lawsuits in the Small Claims Court.
Small Claims Court Actions
Magisterial District Judges (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, an MDJ may also decide personal injury cases or intentional torts (such as conversion, nuisance, theft, assault and harassment).
An MDJ can hear and dispose of claims that seek money in amounts less than $12,000.00. You can appear in Small Claims Court without an attorney, as many parties often do. Filing fees vary and are generally based on the amount you are seeking to recover, but at a minimum, $100, and are recoverable if you win and you can find the fee by calling the office of the MDJ. Attorney fees are generally not recoverable and whatever happens in Small Claims court is appealable to the Court of Common Pleas, so hiring an attorney for a small claim before an MDJ may not be cost effective.
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 MDJ having personal jurisdiction over the parties (generally, where the defendant lives/works and/or the matter occurred in the MDJ geographic area).
For example, if Smith agrees to do work for Jones at a specified rate per day, and Jones does not pay Smith, Smith can bring suit against Jones for up to $12,000.00 in the Small Claims Court where Jones lives, or at where the agreement was made and/or was broken. In a landlord-tenant dispute, the Small Claims Court where the real property is located is the correct court.
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/mailed to the offices of) the MDJ. The websites for most MDJs, and the website for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) maintains forms for the filing of civil and landlord/tenant complaints (as well as landlord/tenant complaints) in small claims court (http://www.pacourts.us/Forms/Default.htm).
You may also visit your local MDJ to obtain a hard copy form complaint, fill it out, and return it with the necessary filing fees (http://www.pacourts.us/T/SpecialCourts/MDJList.htm). Next, the court will serve (that is, deliver) a copy of the complaint to the defendant(s) and set a hearing date. Service will be made by either Certified Mailing or personally by a Constable. Once service is made and a hearing set, the defendant (the party being sued) must, at least 5 days before the scheduled hearing, notify the MDJ, in writing, that he/she intends to defend the case. At any time before the hearing date, the defendant(s) may also 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 or her claims. The MDJ is bound by the rules of evidence, except that a document that appears to have been made in the regular course of business may be introduced in evidence without issue. Once plaintiff concludes presenting the case, the defendant has the opportunity to present evidence in defense. Once all evidence has been presented, the MDJ will either announce a decision immediately or may take up to 5 days to issue a Notice of Judgment, triggering a Right to Appeal, within 30 days of the written decision, 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 MDJ 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 Small Claims Court action had never occurred.
While a corporation or other entity (such as an LLC) may proceed without counsel in Small Claims Court, it may not act without counsel in the court of common pleas—while individuals can still represent themselves.
The attorneys at Cunningham, Chernicoff & Warshawsky, P.C., are available to represent you at your Small Claims Court hearing and/or appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. For MDJ matters, our attorneys work hourly and can 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.