What is "Small Claims Court?"

A claim may be filed with a Magisterial District Judge (MDJ), formerly known as a district justice, where the amount at issue is $12,000 or less, exclusive of interest and filing fees. This is a form of civil litigation through the state court system.

What District Applies?  

Venue and jurisdiction are proper in a district where the Defendant has a business location or resides, or where a portion of the transactions between the parties took place. Here is a list of magisterial district courts.

Consultation 

The "free consultation" is only for matter on appeal from small claims court. 

Our Pittsburgh lawyers do not handle claims on the small claims court docket, as either party can appeal from small claims court for any reason or no reason, so we often encourage clients to represent the matter themselves at the small claims court level, but talk to a lawyer about how to (a) protect the statute of limitations and (b) make sure you are suing the right party/entity, and (3) make sure you are not waiving any defense or failing to appeal within the timeline.

Our lawyers are available to do so for a flat fee $250 consultation, and no advice will be given until we reach an agreement for representation in writing and the fee is paid.    

 

Landlord And Tenant Disputes 

MDJs also decide landlord and tenant disputes. 

Our lawyers in Pittsburgh typically handle on behalf of the landlord, not tenant, so we may not respond to questions on behalf of the tenant, unless the tenant is accused of causing damages to property in excess of $9,000. 

Because of the risk of a conflict of interest, we refer tenant-side cases to the Allegheny County Bar Association lawyer referral line at:  412.261.5555 or Neighborhood Legal Service at:

Allegheny County    412-255-6700

Beaver County         724-378-0595

Lawrence County    724-658-2677

How Do I See Filings Online? 

Docket sheets can be accessed online via a search for docket sheets, by searching by docket number, and/or party name and county.

What Are the Advantages of Small Claims Court?

You do not need a Pittsburgh attorney to represent you in small claims court in Western PA as the system is designed to be simple.  It involves easy forms (click here for sample Complaints, answers, and counterclaims), to be filled out by hand.  The constable serves process on the Defendant, inexpensively.

Plus, you get a court date fairly quickly, within a couple months.  The Magistrate decisions are available online for the world to see who "won" or "lost," making it like "real" court, and if no timely appeal is taken, the award can become a judgment in the Court of Common Pleas for execution on the defendant's assets, as discussed below.

What are the Disadvantages?

Either side in Pennsylvania may file a timely appeal (within 30 days) of the the small claims court decision for any reason, or no reason at all, for a modest filing fee.  So long as the appeal is filed correctly, it is almost like the magistrate "judgment" never happened. Plus, you cannot use small claims court to get a mechanic's lien (sometimes misspelled as "mechanics lien"), or a court order to enjoin (prevent) conduct.

Then, the case gets listed on the the county arbitration docket for a decision or "award." There, again, either party may appeal the award for any reason or no reason.  Hence, many opt to file their claim directly on the arbitration docket for any matter where less than $35,000 is sought in Allegheny County. The arbitration limit varies by county.  A complaint in arbitration must follow certain formalities, such as each paragraph must be separately numbered.  A lawyer should assist with this, unless you are seeking $3,000 or less on the arbitration docket in Allegheny County, where a short form complaint may be used.  See Local Rule 1320.

Given the formalities involved with filing a case on the arbitration docket, many opt to to "start small" and begin on the small claims court docket, first, even if proves to be a "dress rehearsal" if the matter is appealed;  in reality, many cases settle after the parties have their first "day in court." You can always bring in a lawyer after either party decides to appeal the MDJ decision.

Why Involve an Attorney Early On?

As early as possible, you should at least consult with a civil litigation attorney even if you plan to proceed pro se (by yourself) in small claims court.

You need guidance about about (1) what evidence is admissible in small claims court (2) whether you are suing the correct party or corporation (or, if you are a defendant, whether you have been sued in the right capacity), (3) the statute of limitations, (4) whether -- and how -  you can make a counterclaim and (5) the appeal procedure, because if the appeal is not done correctly, or on time, the parties can be bound by the small claims court decision.

What's Next After the MDJ Decision?  

As mentioned, if you don't like the decision, you may appeal for no reason.  If you are satisfied with the decision and the opposing party has not filed a timely appeal, this actually deprives the Court of Common Pleas from jurisdiction to do anything with the case other than enter the judgment.  You should consult an attorney about entering the magistrate "judgment" (which is really an award) as a true judgment on the county docket. Our lawyers resolve disputes in Beaver, Butler, Washington, Greene, and Westmoreland Counties.

Why Enter a Judgment on the County Docket? 

You may enforce a Magisterial District Judge decision.  However, a judgment on the County docket (as opposed to merely the magisterial district docket) is more effective to get at (or "execute upon") the Defendant's county-wide assets, such as his house, bank accounts, cars, or other stuff.

In Allegheny County, a judgment on the County docket automatically constitutes a lien against the defendant's real property (house, business) in the county.  A judgment on the County docket can also be used to execute on the Defendant's bank accounts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or his stuff within the county, as the County Sheriff will have the power of execution by serving a writ of garnishment. This is something with which a lawyer should assist you.

What's the Effect of An Appeal?

A timely appeal (within 30 days) of the award of an MDJ renders the award a nullity, meaning, no judgment can be entered on the award and, thus, the Defendant's assets will remain safe pending the outcome of appeals.  The same things applies if the case proceed onto the arbitration docket, as mentioned above, and, again, a timely appealed is filed in regard to the arbitration award:  it is like the award never happened.  This means, no judgment can be entered on the award and, once again, the Defendant's assets remain safe from execution.

How Many Appeals May Be Taken? 

This might be good news, or bad, depending on whether you are the one trying to recover money versus being the party on the defense side, looking to drag this out indefinitely for leverage in settlement.  Any party can appeal the decision by the MDJ for any reason or no reason, then the case will appear on the County arbitration docket, where 3 lawyers appointed for the day will serve as the finders of fact and law at your arbitration trial.  There, again, any party can appeal the decision for any reason or no reason.  Then, the case will appear on the docket of the Court of Common Pleas and be listed for a jury trial or bench trial, depending on what is requested.   So there are two appeals that can be taken as a matter of right.

Can You Appeal a Decision by a Judge or Jury?

Yes, however, this time, it's much more complicated.  You have to state a reason and show how the judge made an error as a matter of law.  The appeal goes to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure make it extremely difficult to do these appeals.  Many formalities exist, such that many lawyers (including our firm) charge $4,000 to $6,000 to appeal to the Superior Court.

For example, the "brief" in support of the appeal to the Superior Court must include a table of contents, table of citations, and a reproduced transcript of everything that happened before the trial court, which is almost like writing a short novel.  This should only be considered if the trial court made a significant mistake and there is a significant amount of money involves in the dispute.

There is yet another major draw back of appealing to the Superior Court:  unlike your appeal of the MDJ or arbitration award, the appeal to the Superior court does not render the prior decisions a nullity.  A judgment (based on a decision by judge or jury) remain valid and something that can trigger execution on the Defendant's assets until either (1) the superior court acts on the appeal and overturns the lower court's decision, (2) the Superior Court grants a stay of execution upon separate petition, or (3) the losing party posts bond to cover 120% of the amount of the judgment pending the appeal.

Goals of Litigation

Remember that settlement is an option at every stage. As the saying goes, its is often a long walk from the courthouse to the bank.  Likewise, Defendants who expect to drag out a case forever will run out of appeals, eventually.  Getting experienced counsel involved early can help bring about a creative and efficient settlement of a matter before it takes on a life of its own.  Many cases before the Superior and Supreme Court involves disputes involving less than $10,000.  By then, all parties to the dispute have "lost" by virtue of how much time and energy they put into the dispute in lieu of pursuing other endeavors.  So it may be worth involving counsel sooner rather than later to bring resolution to your matter.

Cost of Retaining Us  

Our lawyers turn away more cases than we accept.  We want to leave every client in a better position than we fount him or her, meaning, we do not offer representation unless we believe it will be cost-effective.  Because of the volume of emails and calls we get, we cannot always respond to every inquiry.  If you do not hear from us by the end of the day, feel free to call your local county bar association for a lawyer referral.  

 





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