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What Is a Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania?

Small Claims Courts in Pennsylvania handle civil cases where $12,000 or less is in dispute. These courts do not work independently. Hence, small claims matters are heard in the Small Claims Division of the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court. However, in the city of Philadelphia, the Municipal Courts take care of small claims cases.

Examples of cases that can be filed in the state's small claims courts include:

  • Refund of security deposit
  • Improper vehicle repair
  • Loan refunds
  • Debt recovery
  • Breach of contract

How Does the Pennsylvania Small Claims Court Work?

Litigants can either appear "pro se" (by themselves) in the Pennsylvania Small Claims Courts or hire an attorney to represent them. Small claims cases are less formal, cheaper, and faster to process, and they may be filed in either a local Magisterial District Court or Philadelphia Municipal Court. Claims above the courts' jurisdictional limit must be filed in the Court of Common Pleas.

Apart from Philadelphia, every county in Pennsylvania is categorized into districts, and each district has a Magisterial District Judge that presides over the Small Claims Court. Before a person can sue someone for Small Claims in Pennsylvania, they must ensure that the filing venue is either in:

  • The district where a defendant lives.
  • The district where a business' head office is located. (If the defendant is a business or corporation.)
  • The district where the event that led to the small claims matter occurred.

How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania

Before taking someone to a Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania, the plaintiff must have gathered all relevant information and supporting documents. Some documents that litigants can present in court to corroborate their case include written contracts, police reports, photographs, bills, canceled checks, invoices, estimates, etc.

The first step to beginning a small claims case in Pennsylvania is to file a Civil Complaint Form or the Landlord and Tenant Complaint Form with the court, and pay the filing fee. Plaintiffs can also obtain the application form from the District Court. During the filing process, plaintiffs must ensure they file in the appropriate Small Claims Court (where the defendant lives or an incident took place). Also, the plaintiff must have the correct legal name of the person they are suing. For example, if the defendant is a business, plaintiffs must input the right name and address while filing the case. The Pennsylvania Corporation Bureau may be contacted to find the names, titles, and addresses of corporations.

Upon completing the filing process, a hearing date will be fixed. Landlord and tenant hearings are usually scheduled between 7 to 15 days. Other kinds of Small Claims are heard 12 to 60 days from filing.

After filing, the plaintiff must serve the defendants a copy of the complaints to inform them of the suit and hearing date. The service can be done by hand delivery or certified mail. Any served defendant who has a case against the plaintiff regarding the same matter can file a counterclaim. Counterclaims may be filed up to five days before the hearing.

Note that a defendant can file a continuance request in case of emergency to postpone a hearing. In Philadelphia, a continuance request must be made in person at least ten days before the trial.

Typically, case parties are allowed to settle a dispute via a court mediation program. This program is designed to help litigants resolve cases with a mediator trained to help both sides reach a mutually agreeable conclusion. If an agreement is reached, the litigants must inform the court immediately, and the judge will dismiss the case. If not, the case moves to trial.

For the trial, both the defendant and the plaintiff must observe these general guidelines:

  • Be composed, fluent, and polite.
  • Address the judge while explaining one's side of the story, except the judge permits one side to ask the other a question.
  • Do not interrupt the judge, the other case party, or a witness.

At the trial, the plaintiff will be asked to speak first, followed by the defendant. Each party will also be allowed to present their evidence and witnesses. After that, the judge may make a ruling immediately, or both parties will receive the verdict in five days. Decisions on landlord and tenant cases are sent in three days. Pennsylvania law permits litigants to appeal the case within thirty days of the entry of judgment.

How Much Can You Sue for in Pennsylvania Small Claims Court?

The maximum amount anyone can sue for in a Pennsylvania Small Claims Court is $12,000. Claims above this sum are filed in the Court of Common Pleas.

How to Defend Yourself in Pennsylvania Small Claims Court

A defendant may contact the plaintiff to settle before the hearing date. If both parties settle, the plaintiff must file a Request for Dismissal with the court.

It is necessary to prepare for one's case before the trial. Preparation includes contacting witnesses, gathering facts, and compiling documents that will support a claim.

Generally, defendants must be confident when speaking during the hearing. Also, chronological storytelling and brief yet detailed information are the qualities that may help a person's defense.

How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania?

The period to file a small claims lawsuit in Pennsylvania is limited. Each small claims case has its statute of limitations that restrict the length of time a person has to sue someone else. When this time expires, the plaintiff no longer has the right to sue the defendant in court.

Generally, the civil statute of limitations starts to run on the day a contract is breached, or the property is damaged. However, the statute of limitations can stop and restart in some situations. For example, the rule will be suspended for a prisoner and will only begin to run when the person regains freedom.

The statute for limitations for small claims cases in Pennsylvania include:

  • Breached written contract: four years
  • Breached oral contract: four years
  • Injury cases: two years
  • Property damage: two years

What Happens if You Don't Show Up for Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania?

Sometimes, defendants who have been served do not show up in court since they have no valid defense. In this case, the plaintiff wins by default, and the judge orders the defendant to pay the amount demanded by the plaintiff (plus the filing fees and court expenses incurred). Thus, whether the defendant is guilty or innocent, absence from the hearing will result in an automatic win for the plaintiff.

What are Small Claims Court Records in Pennsylvania?

Small Claims Court records in Pennsylvania reflect all the information on a case. The records contain litigants' names and addresses, amount claimed, judgment, and other important information about the lawsuit.

Where Can I Find Pennsylvania Small Claims Court Records?

Pennsylvania court records are deemed public information according to the provisions of the state public record laws. Hence, Pennsylvania Small Claims Court records are accessible to the public through the Magisterial District Court that handled the case. Additionally, the Pennsylvania judiciary allows the public to search and view court case information on its website.