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Pennsylvania Small Claims Courts

Pennsylvania's Magisterial District Judges (MDJs) decide small claims cases. The Magisterial District Courts adjudicate certain civil disputes that do not exceed $12,000. In Philadelphia, the Municipal Court has jurisdiction over small claims cases.

The following self-help resources and links provide further information about Pennsylvania's small claims courts:

This article summarizes Pennsylvania's small claims court rules and procedures. For more information, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney.

Pennsylvania Small Claims Courts Explained

Pennsylvania's small claims courts allow parties to a civil dispute to resolve their case quickly and inexpensively compared to filing in the Court of Common Pleas.

Small claims courts can award up to $12,000. A party whose claim exceeds $12,000 can file in the small claims court, but they waive their right to recover any amount over $12,000.00

The small claims court is relatively informal. The informality allows many parties to represent themselves throughout their cases. Pennsylvania rules allow parties to hire attorneys if they wish.

The small claims court has limited jurisdiction, meaning it can only adjudicate certain civil claims. In general, it can only decide cases where the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) seeks money. For example, it can hear the following types of cases:

The small claims court cannot hear the following types of cases, among others:

Most adults and businesses can file small claims cases in Pennsylvania. Only the person who suffered the alleged harm can file the case unless they file an Authorized Representative form with the court. Parties can sue other people and businesses in the small claims court.

Before Filing a Small Claims Case

Before the plaintiff files a small claims case, the parties can resolve their dispute without the court's help. The plaintiff can send a demand letter to the opposing party explaining the dispute and why they believe the party owes them money or caused them injury.  Plaintiffs should give the defendant reasonable time to respond to their demand letter.

How To File a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff starts their small claims case by filing a Civil Complaint form with the court clerk. In Philadelphia's Municipal Court, they must file a Statement of Claim form.

The Complaint identifies the following information:

  • All plaintiffs and defendants, along with their addresses
  • The amount of money the plaintiff claims
  • A brief description of the legal dispute
  • The legal basis for the plaintiff's claim

The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee when they file the Complaint. The filing fee may vary based on the amount of the plaintiff's claim.

If you cannot afford the fee, ask the court clerk about filing a fee waiver, also known as an “in forma pauperis" form. If you win the case, the court may award your filing fees as part of the judgment.

Once you file the Complaint and pay the filing fee, the court will set a small claims court hearing date.

Where and When To File

The plaintiff must file their claim in the correct county. The small claims court cannot hear the case if it does not have jurisdiction over the defendant. In general, plaintiffs must file their case in the district where the defendant lives. Other proper venues may include the following districts:

  • Where the dispute or cause of action arose
  • If you are suing a business, the district where they do business

Contact your local Magisterial District Judge if you need help determining where to file your small claims case. Alternatively, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

Plaintiffs must file their civil disputes within a specific time called the statute of limitations. State lawmakers set the statute of limitations for each claim, which vary based on the type of claim. If you do not file your claim within the statute of limitations, the court cannot hear it. Read Pennsylvania's Civil Statute of Limitations Laws for more information about filing in time.

Serving the Defendant

Once they file, the plaintiff must ensure that every party they are suing knows about the lawsuit. This involves ensuring the defendant receives a copy of the Complaint and several other court forms.

Plaintiffs have several options for serving the defendant. These include the following:

  • They can ask the court to send the forms via certified mail with a return receipt requested. The court will charge a service fee for serving the defendant.
  • They can contact the sheriff's office and pay them a fee to serve the defendant.
  • They can contact a private process server who will serve the defendant.

Failing to serve the defendant may result in delays in your case.

In general, the plaintiff must serve the defendant at least 15 days before the hearing date. Your county's rules may vary. The court clerk can provide you with more information about how to serve the defendant.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

Suppose the plaintiff sues the defendant in Philadelphia's Municipal Court, and the defendant disputes the plaintiff's claims. In that case, they must file a Notice to Defend form. The plaintiff may have sent the defendant a Notice to Defend form as part of serving them. The defendant must file the Notice to Defend within 20 days of receiving it and at least five days before the hearing.

If the plaintiff sued the defendant in a court other than Philadelphia's Municipal Court, the defendant may contact the local court clerk and ask if they need to respond to the plaintiff's Complaint. The documents served on you may also instruct you as to whether you must respond.

Failing to respond to the plaintiff's Complaint could significantly affect the defendant. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if they fail to respond. This means the plaintiff wins their case, and the defendant must pay the plaintiff's claimed amount.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff arising from the same incident, they may file a counterclaim. They must file their counterclaim at least five days before the hearing date.

The defendant may request a jury trial. If they request it and the court grants it, a higher court will hear the case. This may require the parties to hire attorneys.

If the defendant knows they cannot attend the scheduled hearing, they can request the court to continue the hearing to a later date. The court must receive the Request for Continuance letter at least 10 days before the hearing. The defendant must explain why they cannot attend and include their contact information.

Before the Hearing

The parties may try to settle their case before the small claims hearing. If they settle their case, they should contact the court clerk.

Before the hearing, parties may gather evidence to introduce to the court. In a contract dispute, this may include a copy of the contract or other documents. A negligence action, like a car accident, may include photographs or insurance quotes.

If the opposing party has documents you may need to prove your case, you may file a subpoena to obtain the documents. A subpoena is a court order requiring someone to take action, like producing documents or appearing at the hearing. Before issuing a subpoena, consider contacting the opposing party to obtain the documents without the court's help.

The Small Claims Hearing

All parties must attend the small claims hearing. If the plaintiff does not appear at the hearing, the court may dismiss their case. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant fails to appear.

An MDJ presides over and conducts the small claims court hearing. The plaintiff will present their case first. This may include presenting evidence, offering testimony, and calling witnesses to testify. Once the plaintiff finishes their arguments, the defendant will present theirs.

The MDJ will issue an opinion immediately after the hearing or within five days of its conclusion.

Either party may appeal the small claims court's judgment. They must file their Notice of Appeal in the Prothonotary's Office at the County Court. The Court of Common Pleas will hear the appeal.

Enforcing a Judgment

The judgment creditor is the person or entity that wins the case and is owed money. The judgment debtor is the person or entity that loses the case and owes money. The judgment creditor is responsible for enforcing the judgment; the court does not collect the money for them.

If the judgment debtor cannot or does not pay the creditor, the creditor may request the court's assistance, such as an Order of Execution from the court. The Order allows the sheriff's office to seize certain property from the debtor and sell it at public auction. The proceeds from the auction then go towards satisfying the judgment. Obtaining an Order may cost the creditor additional fees.

If you have questions about how to enforce a judgment, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

Contact an Attorney

Although parties to a small claims case in Pennsylvania do not have to hire attorneys, the court rules allow them to do so. An experienced civil litigation attorney can provide helpful legal advice, such as the following:

  • Defense and litigation strategy when someone sues you in small claims court
  • Preparing for the small claims hearing, including gathering relevant evidence
  • How to collect on a judgment in your favor

If you are involved in a Pennsylvania small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney for legal advice in your civil case.

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