DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is recommended
Initial Filing Fee: $35 to $90
In Pennsylvania, small claims are made in the Magisterial District Courts, which are part of the lowest tier of courts in the state. Anyone who feels that they have a legal right to recover money from a business or individual is able to make a claim in this court, though the maximum amount that the claim can concern is limited. This amount varies from county to county, although in Philadelphia the cap is $12,000 plus interest. If the amount of a claim is in excess of this limit then the trial must move out of the dominion of small claims and proceed through the Court of Common Pleas, where there is no limit to the amount of a claim. One of the main advantages of small claims and the Magisterial District Courts is that the fees for claims in these courts are smaller, they generally do not require lawyers, and their processes tend to move faster than those in the Court of Common Pleas.
Step 1: Establish the District in Which the Claim Will Take Place
Every county in Pennsylvania, except for Philadelphia, is divided into several districts. The complaint that begins the process of making a small claim should be filed in the district in which the person being sued lives, the district that the business or corporation being sued does business, or the district in which the dispute took place.
Step 2: Act Quickly to File
According to the Pennsylvania statute of limitations, you are only able to file a complaint within a certain period of time, which varies depending on the claim. In the case of violation or issues regarding a written or oral contract, you have four years in which to make the claim. In the case of personal injury or property damage, you have only two years in which to make the claim. After this period of time has passed you will not be able to bring a complaint against someone for the issue at hand.
Step 3: File the Complaint
To begin the process of suing the individual or corporation you will need to file a complaint with the Magisterial District Court or Court of Common Pleas responsible for the district in which you are going to proceed with the claim. This can be done with either a Civil Complaint Form or a Landlord and Tenant Complaint Form, depending on the specific case. At this point you will also have to pay the fee for filing the complaint. If you are unable to pay the fee then you will need to also submit an In Forma Pauperis Form requesting that you be allowed to proceed without paying the fee. If you are forced to pay the fee, however, and you win the case, the defending party will be required to pay the fee back to you. Once the complaint is filed, a judge will write a date and time for the trial on the complaint form.
Step 4: Serve the Defendant
Once the complaint is filed and a trial date is set, the defendant must be served a copy of the complaint so that they may prepare for and attend the trial. The process for service varies from case to case, some instances requiring that it be done by the sheriff’s department or a member of the local law enforcement agency, while other instances requiring that it be delivered in person or through the mail. The courthouse clerk will be able to advise you as to the specifics of your case and how to proceed.
Step 5: The Trial
After the complaint has been filed and the defendant has been served the case will move to a trial or hearing. At this point both sides present their arguments, introduce documents pertaining to the complaint, and introduce witnesses to testify and provide additional information. When both sides have concluded, the judge may either make a decision immediately or within five days of the conclusion of the trial or hearing.
Step 6: The Appeal
After a decision is reached, either party has a right to appeal the decision to the Court of Common Appeals. To do so, they must fill out and submit a Notice of Appeal Form within 30 days of the judgment and submit it to Prothonotary’s Office or the Department of Court Records at the County Court House. If an appeal is filed, the process of the trial starts over again from a neutral standpoint.
Step 7: Remuneration
Once a judgment is reached, should it be in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant must pay the amount specified. This can be done in a single lump sum or through a payment plan if necessary. Should the defendant not pay within 30 days of the judgment, then the plaintiff may file an Order of Execution. If approved, the Order of Execution allows the Sheriff’s office to take control of the defendant’s property and sell a portion of it in order to make up the amount of money owed to the plaintiff.