Think of the Pennsylvania court system as a pyramid with the state Supreme Court on top, just above the two lower appellate courts. At the bottom are the minor courts that include the Magisterial District courts. In most of the state, small claims court cases are heard in these courts, although small claims cases in Philadelphia are heard by the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
Anyone who has a civil dispute that meets the damage limits for small claims court might consider going that route. These are courts with rules and procedures that are less formal to allow individuals to resolve their claims without hiring an attorney.
Pennsylvania Small Claims Court
Under Pennsylvania law, there are no courts specifically titled small claims court. Rather, these cases are heard in the Small Claims Division of the Magisterial District Courts in most of the state, and in the Municipal Courts in Philadelphia.
In modern times, going to court has become expensive and time-consuming. Court rules and procedures can be extremely complex, and the time between filing a case and getting to trial can be years. Given the complexity, most individuals going to court will be required to hire attorneys, and legal fees can prove prohibitive.
Small claims courts are an important part of the judicial system in all states, allowing litigants with small disputes to handle their own cases relatively quickly and inexpensively.
Pennsylvania Court System
The judicial systems of most states, including Pennsylvania, are divided into various levels and layers of courts. Some are trial courts where civil cases and criminal cases begin; others are appellate courts where a party can appeal an unfavorable verdict from a trial court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the state court of last resort, where appellate rulings can be challenged.
At the very bottom of the judicial pyramid in Pennsylvania are the courts referred to as "minor" courts, or "special" courts: the Magisterial District Courts and the Municipal Courts in Philadelphia. These are the first level of Pennsylvania's judiciary and where small claims cases are heard.
There are 511 magisterial district judges in the state and 41 Philadelphia municipal court judges who preside over these cases. While judges in other state courts must be lawyers, that is not required for Pennsylvania minor courts, although the judges must pass a qualifying exam.
Eligible Cases for Pennsylvania Small Claims
The term "small claims court" is an appropriate one, since the cases that can be taken to the Small Claims Court Division in Pennsylvania are small ones. The only disputes that can be resolved in small claims in Pennsylvania are money disputes that involve an amount of money no more than $12,000.
Anyone bringing a case must agree to limit their claims to that restriction. This amount does not include court costs or interest due on the claim that may be awarded on top of the $12,000 claims limit. Small claims court cases can be brought against both businesses and individuals.
Cases That Cannot Be Brought in Small Claims Court
Remember that only civil cases for money damages are filed in small claims court. Civil cases are cases that are not criminal cases, that is, not brought by the government seeking criminal penalties.
Divorce, child custody and probate cases cannot be heard in small claims court either, nor can the court order a person to do anything other than pay money. Therefore cases that may be filed in small claims court in other states, such as eviction and recovery of property, cannot be brought in Pennsylvania small claims.
Typical Small Claims Cases in Pennsylvania
Examples of cases that are appropriate for Pennsylvania small claims courts include cases that seek:
- Refund of security deposit.
- Damages for improper vehicle repair.
- Refund of a loan.
- Payment of a debt.
- Damages for contract breach.
- Damages from an automobile accident caused by negligence.
According to the Philadelphia Municipal Court, the types of cases most often heard there are based on negligence or contract disputes. The court explains these types of cases as follows:
- Contract: Agreement between two or more parties that can be written or oral. Common examples are agreements between homeowners and contractors to make repairs; between insurance companies and insureds to provide property, liability or life insurance; between vendors and purchasers to provide goods or services; between lenders and borrowers to loan money; and between credit card companies and credit card holders to provide credit.
- Negligence: Based on an ordinary citizen's responsibility to use reasonable care to protect others from harm. When that duty is broken and damages occur, the injured person may file a claim. One example of a negligence action is when a person drives through a red light and strikes another vehicle.
Advantages of Small Claims Division
Note that a Pennsylvania resident who wishes to file a claim for $12,000 or less may also file a complaint in the Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court, essentially the state's regular trial court.
However, cases filed in the Small Claims Court Division of Magisterial District Courts are less formal, less expensive and faster than using Common Pleas Courts. Another advantage of small claims court is that a party is not required to be represented by an attorney.
Filing a case in small claims allows a party to resolve a small-money dispute without great expense. Filing fees are low, although they vary among counties, and the time frame is expedited. The rules and procedures for court filings and appearances are simplified so most cases can be presented by the parties themselves, although it is possible to be represented by an attorney.
Where to File the Claim
Once an individual decides to file their case in Magisterial District Court, they must give some thought to which court would be appropriate. There are magisterial district/municipal courts in every county. Anyone considering heading to small claims court can find court addresses in their county online.
The rule governing where a suit should be filed is termed "venue." Typically, a lawsuit must be filed where the:
- Individual being sued lives.
- Business being sued operates.
- Claim arose.
"Where the claim arose" means, for example, where a car accident occurred or where a contract was entered into that is the subject of the litigation.
Preparing to File the Claim
Prepare for filing in Small Claims Court by first gathering the required information, including the name and full street address of the person or company to be sued. Post office box addresses are not sufficient.
For parties to be sued that are not individuals, it is necessary to have the business' correct name. This is true for a corporation, partnership and any limited liability entity. Anyone unsure of a business name can get assistance from Pennsylvania’s Corporation Bureau at the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Other documents are necessary to present and prosecute a claim. It's a good idea to pull together all of these documents before filing since copies must be sent to the other party before trial. What those documents include depends on the case. For example:
- Contract in a contract case.
- Correspondence between parties regarding the dispute.
- Police report in an accident case.
- Photographs and diagrams.
- Records and reports of licensed health care providers.
- Bills for drugs, medical appliances and prostheses.
- Affidavits of repair persons setting forth the actual or estimated cost to repair damaged property and of the fair market value of that damaged property.
- Affidavits of treating physicians detailing the charges for professional services.
- Report from the employer of the rate of earnings and time lost from work or lost compensation.
- Official weather or traffic signal report.
In Pennsylvania, the party bringing the case will generally attach documents to their original filing that they intend to use at trial. If there are pertinent documents to be used in court that were not attached to the original filing, they must be sent to the other party at least 10 days before trial.
When to File the Claim
The laws of every state sets time limits in which to bring legal actions. This is intended to allow both of the parties to find witnesses and evidence about the incident to present their case.
If someone sues over an accident that happened 20 years ago, finding this information to prove what happened and locating witnesses who remember the facts would be much harder.
That is the rationale behind the statutes of limitations in Pennsylvania: to encourage people to resolve disputes within a reasonable time frame. All claims filed in Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania are time restricted. Think of it as a window of time to file a case, termed a statute of limitations.
Pennsylvania Statutes of Limitations
Statutes of limitations range from very short (90 days or less ) to several years for a written contract action. For example, the statute of limitation for automobile personal injury cases in Pennsylvania is two years. These time periods usually begin at the time of the injury, such as the accident or the contract breach.
The claim must be filed within the time period set out in the statute of limitations. If it is even one day over the statute, the right to sue disappears. On a motion from the defendant, the court can throw out the claim altogether as "time-barred."
Filing Small Claims in Pennsylvania
It is a good idea for anyone considering filing a small claims court to go personally to the Magisterial District Court in the appropriate county or to the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Most courts have interviewers there to help litigants get started.
In Philadelphia, a party who intends to represent themselves must visit the court and work with an interviewer. But in other counties in the state, a party does not have to take advantage of the assistance from court personnel. It is possible for an individual to prepare and file a statement of claim by mail.
Essentially, filing a claim involves filling out a simple claim form that includes the name and address of the person bringing the action, the name and address of the person or company being sued, and a summary of the dispute including details like dates. No legal language is required.
Note that a party can have a lawyer represent them in small claims court in Pennsylvania, but they must complete and file a form authorizing this. There is also a filing fee to be paid that varies among counties.
Rules for Serving the Other Side
Once the small court claim is filed, the court clerk schedules a hearing. This is generally between 12 and 60 days from the day the complaint is filed. But before that hearing, the other party must be served with a copy of the court papers.
Two methods of service are available. The court clerk can send the complaint by certified mail with return receipt to the court or the complaint can be delivered by a sheriff or a constable.
Both of these methods of service carry a fee, with the former option less expensive than the second. The clerk of the court will inform the person filing the claim of the fees. It's advisable to pay extra to have the sheriff give the documents to the other party if they are likely to avoid accepting them. All of these fees can be recovered if the plaintiff is successful.
Appear at the Court Hearing and Present the Case
The person filing the case must show up in court on the hearing date or the case will be dismissed. If the other side does not show up, the court typically gives the plaintiff a default judgment.
If both parties appear, both have the opportunity to present their evidence and argue their case before the judge. The judge may ask questions during the hearing, and the decision may come immediately at the hearing or by mail a few days later.
- Philadelphia Muncipal Court: How to Start a Small Claims Case
- Pearce Law Firm: 5 Steps to Filing and Winning Your Small Claims Court Case in Philadelphia
- Pennsylvania Courts: Pennsylvania Court System
- Small Claims Courthouse.com: Allegheny County Small Claims Court, Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania State Records: Small Claims
- Pennsylvania Bar Assoc: Bringing Suit Before a Magisterial District Judge
- Pennsylvania Department of State: Business
- Statutes of Limitations: Pennsylvania
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.