If you’re seeking damages of $12,000 or less, the courts in Pennsylvania make it relatively simple to file a civil suit without an attorney. All the necessary forms and easy-to-follow instructions are available online. If you are seeking more than $12,000 from the person or organization you’re suing, you’ll need a lawyer and a different court venue to proceed with your case.
The Pennsylvania Court System
The Pennsylvania court system is divided into levels:
- minor courts
- courts of common pleas
- superior court and commonwealth court
- supreme court
Minor courts include magisterial district courts, Philadelphia Municipal Court and Pittsburgh Municipal Court. Residents can file suits for less than $12,000 in either common pleas courts or magisterial district courts. Consider having your case heard in magisterial district court, however, because it’s less expensive, less formal and generally quicker than common pleas courts. You don’t need an attorney in magisterial district court, but you can hire one if you want. Residents of Pittsburgh, however, must proceed through municipal court since that county does not have a magisterial district court.
Before You File Suit
Select which magisterial district judge, or MJD, has jurisdiction in your case. Generally, you must file where the person or company you’re suing, the defendant, is located. You’ll find a listing of MJDs and their jurisdictions on the website of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.
Suits should be filed in a timely manner since most civil claims have a statute of limitations – a point in time when your complaint is no longer valid. For information regarding your specific complaint, you can contact the magisterial district court where you plan to file your suit.
Filing a Complaint
When you decide to sue, file a complaint form to request that your case be heard by the MDJ. The form is easy to complete and available on the MDJ website. The document includes your personal information, such as name and address, as well as the name and address of the business or person you’re suing. Also enter the amount you’re suing for and give a brief, but detailed, explanation of why the defendant owes you money.
You can mail the complaint form to the MDJ office, but it’s generally recommended that you submit it in person so the clerk can check the form for completeness and tell you if there are errors on the form. Filing fees are due when you submit the document. You can find out how much the filing fees are in advance by contacting the MDJ office where the suit will be filed. Check to see which payment methods they accept; some courts require that you pay fees only with cash or a money order.
Once you’ve filed, the clerk will schedule a hearing date before the MDJ, typically 12 to 60 days from the time of filing. You must provide the other party with a copy of the complaint and a notice of the hearing. The clerk can send the paperwork to the defendant by certified mail or you can choose to have it served by the sheriff’s department.
Steps for filing a lawsuit in Pittsburgh County are the same as those required in any other county, except that you file through the Philadelphia County Municipal Court rather than a magisterial district court.