Defending an Action at the District Justice Office
Authored By: MidPenn Legal Services
Publication of this Brochure was Funded by a State College Borough Community Development Block Grant
In Pennsylvania, people who think they have been wronged by someone else can file a complaint at the office of a Magisterial District Judge. The District Judge was formerly called a District Justice Magistrate or Justice of the Peace. The advantage of the District Justice system is it can work well without attorneys. The District Judges hear cases in which there is $8000.00 or less at issue. If you have been sued in the office of a District Judge you can, and often should, defend yourself. This packet has information on how to do that.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE BEEN SUED AT THE DISTRICT JUDGE'S OFFICE?
If you have been sued at the District Judge's office, you will receive a Civil Complaint. There are several copies made of the complaint. Click here to see a civil complaint form from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. The complaint will either be delivered to you by a constable or sheriff's deputy or you will receive it in the mail. If it comes in the mail you will have to sign for it.
The person suing you is called the plaintiff. You are the defendant. The amount you are being sued for is in the middle of the page in a statement following the words TO THE DEFENDANT: The reason you are being sued should be written in this section also. Some examples are:
- The defendant agreed to pay me $300.00 to paint his/her living room. He/She has not paid me.
- The defendant and I resided together for 3 years. He/She now refuses to give me my TV and VCR valued at $500.00.
- The defendant hit my parked car and did $750.00 worth of damage.
- The defendant purchased a living room suit from XYZ Company and is in default. $700.00 remains due and owing.
- The defendant contracted with Wehaul Trash Company for trash pick up. The services were rendered. The fee was not paid. The defendant owes $300.00 for the services.
- Evictions: You may also be sued in the office of a District Judge if your landlord is trying to evict you. Although the information in this packet may be useful, you may also have other rights and obligations. If you are being evicted call your local legal services program immediately for further information.
WHEN AND WHERE IS THE HEARING?
The location, time and date of the hearing is written in the top section of the page. You should be ready to proceed with a hearing on the date given by the District Judge. If you cannot go to a hearing at the time scheduled, you should contact the District Judge, immediately, and ask that the hearing be rescheduled. However, there is no guarantee your request will be granted.
If the hearing is scheduled someplace other than the judicial district where you live, you should contact MidPenn Legal Services to find out if the complaint was filed in the wrong district. For example, if you live in Mifflintown and the hearing is scheduled for a District Judge in State College, the complaint may have been filed with the wrong District Judge.
CAN I SUE THE PLAINTIFF AT THE SAME TIME?
If you have a claim against the plaintiff that is the result of the same incident, you can file a counterclaim. You should immediately contact the District Judge's office and tell them you want to file a counterclaim. Some examples of counterclaims are:
- The paint job was inferior and the plaintiff broke a window which cost you $50.00 to replace.
- He/She took your microwave when he/she left and it is valued at $200.00
- His/Her car was parked in the middle of the road at night and your car sustained $2000.00 worth of damage.
You can file a counterclaim up to 5 days before the hearing. If you file a counterclaim, the plaintiff will be notified. The District Judge will consider both claims at the hearing.
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE HEARING?
At the hearing, the plaintiff will be the first to present testimony. He/She can testify and have witnesses. You and your witnesses will testify after the plaintiff's side of the case has been presented.
You must have any document that is important to your case with you. The District Judge will only consider documents presented at the hearing. You will be given a chance to ask your witnesses questions. You will also be able to question the plaintiff and his/her witnesses. The District Judge may ask questions of all the witnesses at any time. The District Judge will decide whether or not to hear certain evidence if either the plaintiff or defendant objects to it.
You have the right to get subpoenas from the District Judge. A subpoena requires a witness to come to the hearing even if he/she does not want to come. The subpoena also can require the witness to bring documents needed to prove your case. You need to get the subpoenas as soon as possible to be sure that the witnesses get them in time for the hearing. You may want to get subpoenas for people who saw what happened but have to work and might not otherwise be able to get off from work for the hearing. An example of a person you might want to subpoena, is a mechanic who can testify that the repairs made by the defendant were not done properly. A subpoena is served when it is handed to the witness by an adult individual who is not a party to this matter. The person who served the subpoena then completes the back of the subpoena and swears that he/she served it.
Remember that most of the time written statements from people who do not appear to testify will not be considered by the District Judge. The exception is that he/she will consider a bill, estimate, receipt or statement of account which was made in the regular course of business. For instance, your receipt for car repairs or rent receipts would be considered by the District Judge.
Presenting your case is really a matter of common sense. You should make a written outline or check sheet to use at the hearing so you can be sure you ask all the questions and present all the evidence you want the District Judge to consider.
After all the testimony, the District Judge will decide the case. He/She may make the decision right in court after all the evidence is taken. If he/she does not do this, a decision must be made within 5 days and a copy of it sent to each party.
CAN I APPEAL?
You have the right to appeal a decision with which you do not agree. You should consult an attorney before you appeal. The appeal must be filed within 30 days of the District Judge's decision. The decision date is either the day of the hearing or if it is a written decision, the date on the written decision.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I LOSE?
If you lose and do not appeal after 30 days the plaintiff can go to the District Judge's office and ask that an order of execution be entered. The plaintiff must ask for this order within 5 years after the judgment.
The District Judge will deliver the order to the sheriff or a constable who will serve it upon you. At the time it is served, the sheriff or constable will also list your property which he/she intends to sell. The money from the sale will be used to pay the costs of the sale and the amount of the judgment. The property a District Judge can order to be sold does not include land.
Each person can claim a $300.00 exemption. That means you can have $300.00 worth of property set aside and not be sold. The documents the sheriff or constable serves on you will tell you how to claim your exemption.
If the property the sheriff or constable says will be sold is not owned by you, the person or company who owns it should contact the District Judge. This includes appliances, furniture and other items, which are not completely paid for yet. Also, if you are married and the judgment is only against you, your spouse can claim a third party claim with the District Judge on property you both own. For more information about sheriff sales, please request our sheriff sale brochure.
W A R N I N G:
IF YOU DO NOT DEFEND AT THE DISTRICT COURT OR APPEAL WITHIN THIRTY DAYS OF THE JUDGMENT, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO RAISE A DEFENSE TO THE JUDGMENT IN THE FUTURE.
This pamphlet is meant to give general information and not specific legal advice. MidPenn Legal Services (MPLS) in providing this information, is in no way agreeing or implying that it will represent individuals who use the enclosed information. Although this information is believed accurate at the time of preparation, MPLS assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of this information. Individual situations require individual analysis.