Pennsylvania’s small claims court system is a system of uniform statewide Magisterial District Justice courts. Each of the more than 500 Magisterial District Justices has exclusive jurisdiction over his or her specific geographic area. Civil claims can be brought in the district where the defendant is located or where the action occurred that led to the dispute. The Magisterial District Justice (MDJ) can hear claims up to $12,000. MDJs also handle most landlord-tenant disputes including virtually all residential leases within their districts.
A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint on a pre-printed form and paying a filing fee to the District Court. The complaint must ask for a specific amount of money, and it must set forth a simple statement of why the plaintiff is entitled to judgment. Once the MDJ receives the complaint and the filing fee, the court staff will attempt to serve the defendant by certified mail. If service by certified mail fails and the plaintiff pays an additional fee, the constable will attempt to serve the complaint personally upon the defendant.
After the complaint is served, the MDJ will set a hearing date. On or before that date, the defendant must notify the MDJ whether the complaint will be defended. If the defendant enters a defense, a new date is usually set at which time a trial will be held. The trial is normally held within sixty days of filing, unlike Common Pleas Court (county level) where it can take months or even years before a trial is held. If the defendant has not entered a defense by the hearing date, the plaintiff receives a judgment in its favor by default.
Unlike the Court of Common Pleas (County Court), there is no discovery, depositions, or interrogatories prior to trial at the MDJ level and there is no avenue for dismissal or deciding the case prior to the date of the hearing as there is in the Court of Common Pleas. For a defendant, preparation for trial can be tricky because the defendant may not know the exact nature of the claim until trial; likewise the plaintiff has no idea what defenses the defendant will raise. Because of the possibility for surprises, there can be a real benefit to being represented by an experienced attorney familiar with the possible claims and defenses which may come up. Upon the conclusion of the trial, the Judge has five days to mail a decision to the parties. Any party aggrieved with the judgment may appeal to the Common Pleas Court within thirty days.
The MDJ system provides a quick and cost-effective way of resolving smaller civil disputes. There are some advantages to bringing a suit in MDJ Court. In connection with this, it should be noted that a plaintiff with a claim larger than the $12,000 jurisdictional limit can waive a portion of that claim to bring it within the jurisdiction of the MDJ. For example, if a plaintiff had a claim for $13,000, he or she might consider filing a claim with the local MDJ in the amount of $12,000.00; the speed and convenience of the MDJ hearing in comparison to the Court of Common Pleas, might justify lowering the claim by $1,000.
Call us if you have a dispute and are considering whether to file in small claims court. We may be able to assist.
Two final words to the wise: (1) Whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant, make sure the claim is filed with the correct Magisterial District Justice; we have been involved with defendants who have won their case (at least temporarily) when the matter was thrown out at the hearing because it was the wrong jurisdiction; and (2) If you are a plaintiff, remember that many claims have a two year statute of limitations, so don’t sit on those claims!
– J. Ken Butera