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.
Filing a civil suit in Pennsylvania will have a different procedure depending upon whether you start in municipal or magisterial district court for small claims, or if you file in the Court of Common Pleas for larger claims. Small claims cases don't need lawyers involved, but if you have a larger dollar amount, legal counsel is recommended.
The Pennsylvania Court System
The Pennsylvania court system is divided into levels:
- minor courts (for small claims)
- 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 and Philadelphia, however, must proceed through municipal court, since those counties do not have a magisterial district court. The municipal courts and the magisterial district courts function in much the same way.
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. In Philadelphia, you don't need to take this step, as your case will be assigned to a judge when you file it.
Suits should be filed in a timely manner since most civil claims have a statute of limitations – a deadline for filing suit on a specific type of claim. For information regarding your specific complaint, you can contact the magisterial district court or municipal court where you plan to file your suit.
Filing a Complaint in Small Claims
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 Philadelphia 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, and the complaint and all its information can be completed entirely online at the court's online claim filing system. You can also go to the court and file the complaint on paper.
Filing a Complaint in the Court of Common Pleas
If you want to file suit in the Court of Common Pleas, or if you have to because the amount in controversy is over $12,000, you'll need to prepare a complaint, which is a list of numbered paragraphs that set forth your cause of action and everything that happened in your case that entitles you to a money judgment. If the complaint relates to a written contract or agreement, you'll need to attach a copy. You can file the complaint at the prothonotary's office (which is essentially the court clerk's office), and you'll have to serve it on the person you're suing. Using an attorney to sue in the Court of Common Pleas, however, will ensure that everything is done correctly.