How to Appeal From District Justice Court
Authored By: MidPenn Legal Services
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APPEALS FROM DISTRICT JUSTICE COURT
If you have lost a case in District Judge Court, you have the right to file an appeal to the local Common Pleas Court of your county. Because of lack of staff, your local legal services program may not be able to represent you. However, you may be able to file an appeal on your own, with the help of this booklet.
This booklet does not tell you everything about how to handle an appeal. It only describes the steps that should be taken in the simplest cases. Also, each Common Pleas Court has "local rules" that apply just in its county. This booklet does not cover those local rules.
It is difficult to handle an appeal without a lawyer. After reading this booklet, you may decide that it is too complicated for you to do by yourself. Before you make that decision, you should read this entire booklet.
You should only file an appeal if you have a legitimate, reasonable disagreement with the District Judge's decision. If you file an appeal without a good reason, you could be forced to pay the fees for the other side's lawyer. Also, the decision of the Common Pleas Court could end up being worse than the one made by the District Judge. For these reasons and others, it may be best for you to accept the District Judge's ruling, even though you disagree with it. Sometimes you may be able to work out a settlement by making a proposal to the other side. You can also ask the District Judge to allow you to pay in installments, for a period of up to one year.
This booklet covers only cases where you were the person being sued (the Defendant) in District Judge court. If you were the one who brought the lawsuit (the Plaintiff), an appeal to Common Pleas Court is probably too complicated for you to handle without a lawyer. This booklet does not cover appeals in criminal cases or landlord-tenant evictions. It only covers appeals in civil lawsuits for money.
IMPORTANT TERMS & INFORMATION
The person who appeals a decision is called the "Appellant." The other side is called the "Appellee."
You should always make several copies of every paper you file with the court, and keep one copy for your own records.
You must always give or mail a copy of every paper you file with the court to the other side. This is called "serving" the paper on the other side.
Neatness counts. You should print or type all documents to make sure that they can be read easily. Some of the documents you will have to prepare may be forms that have several copies; if so, use a typewriter or press hard.
FILING THE APPEAL
A. Time limit
You must file your appeal within 30 days of the date the District Judge made the decision, which is also called a "judgment." The District Judge usually makes the decision on the same day as the hearing, but is allowed to wait up to five days after the hearing. If you do not get a written notice of the decision at the hearing or within five days after the hearing, you should contact the District Judge's office to make sure the notice has not been sent to the wrong address.
The 30-day appeal period starts from the date of the decision, not the date it was mailed to you or the date you received it. If the 30th day falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, you have until the next day that the Common Pleas Court is open to file your appeal.
YOU MUST FILE YOUR APPEAL WITHIN THE 30-DAY PERIOD, OR THE DISTRICT JUDGE'S DECISION WILL BECOME FINAL AND YOUR APPEAL WILL NOT BE ALLOWED.
To be on the safe side, you should file your appeal several days before the deadline.
B. The Notice to Appeal
You start the appeal process by filling out a Notice of Appeal form. You can get the form from the Prothonotary (the clerk of the civil part of the Common Pleas Court). Appendix A shows a Notice of Appeal.
Once you have filled out the Notice of Appeal, you must file it with the Prothonotary in the Common Pleas Court where the office of the District Justice is located.
C. Filing Fee
The Common Pleas Court charges a fee for filing an appeal. The fee varies from county to county but is generally in the $40 - $60 range. The Prothonotary's office can tell you what the fee is. You should ask the Prothonotary or your local legal services office if there are any local rules about IFP Petitions that you need to follow.
If your income is low, you can ask the court to excuse you from paying the filing fee. To do this, you must file an "In Forma Pauperis ["IFP"] Petition and Affidavit" like the one attached to this booklet as Appendix B. You will leave the "Order" blank but you need to fill out the "Petition' and "Affidavit" completely.
Give the IFP Order, Petition and Affidavit to the Prothonotary at the same time as you file your appeal. You should find out in a few days whether the Court has approved your IFP Petition. If your Petition is rejected, you will have to pay the filing fee or face having your appeal dismissed.
D. Serving the Notice of Appeal
After you have filed the Notice of Appeal with the Prothonotary, you must give or send a copy to both the District Judge and the Plaintiff. This is called "serving" the Notice of Appeal.
The Appeal form has several copies. When you file the appeal, the Prothonotary will keep one copy and give you back all the rest. The last copy (which is a golden-orange color) says "Copy to be served on District Judge" at the bottom. You must take this to the District Judge's office in person, or send it there by certified mail.
Take the second-to-last copy (which is pink) says "Copy to be served on Appellee" at the bottom. You must give this to the other side or send it by certified mail.
The yellow copy (marked "Appellant's Copy") is for you.
After you have served the District Justice and the other side, you must fill out the Proof of Service on the reverse side of the green copy (marked "Court File") and return it to the Prothonotary. If you use certified mail, you must attach the white sender's receipts to the Proof of Service which is included as Appendix C of this pamphlet. You must file the Proof of Service with the Prothonotary no more than 10 days after you have filed your Notice of Appeal.
A. Deadline for Filing Complaint
If you were the one sued in District Judge Court (the Defendant), the other side (the Plaintiff) has to file a Complaint within 20 days from the date you gave or mailed them the Notice of Appeal. The Complaint is a legal paper that tells the Court the details about why the Plaintiff feels you owe money. If you mailed a copy of the Notice of Appeal to the Plaintiff, the date of service is the date that you mailed it.
B. If the Other Side Does Not File a Complaint
You can have the Plaintiff's case dismissed IF: a) more than 20 days have passed since you mailed or gave the Notice of Appeal to the Plaintiff, and b) the Plaintiff has not filed a Complaint. To get the case dismissed, you must prepare a form like Appendix D (Praecipe for Non Pros) and file it with the Prothonotary.
When you give the Praecipe to the Prothonotary, you may also have to provide a Notice of Judgment of Non Pros and a stamped envelope, addressed to the other side. Before you file a Praecipe for Non Pros, you should ask the Prothonotary about these possible requirements.
If the other side does not file a Complaint and you get a Judgment of Non Pros, then the case is over. The other side may still have the right to start a new case against you, but that does not usually happen. The other side may also ask the Common Pleas Court to "open" the judgment of Non Pros, if the other side can show a good reason for not filing the complaint on time.
C. If the Other Side Files a Complaint
If the other side (the Plaintiff) files a Complaint, you must file an Answer with the Court within 20 days after you get the Complaint. You must also give or send a copy of the Answer to the other side. It is very difficult to prepare and file an Answer without a lawyer. This pamphlet tells you only the most basic steps that you have to follow.
If the other side files a Complaint and you don't file an Answer, the other side can get a "default judgment" against you -- a ruling that you owe the amount of money the other side has asked for -- without presenting any evidence. However, before the other side can get such a default judgment, they must send you a notice reminding you that you must file an answer within 10 days of the date the notice is mailed.
Praecipe and Answer
If you decide to file an Answer on your own, you should write the name of the case, the name of the Court, the case number, and the word "Answer" at the top of the page, as in the example in Appendix E. Then you should write out your response to each paragraph of the Complaint. Use the same paragraph numbers for your Answer as the Complaint uses.
If a paragraph of the Complaint is completely true, your answer should say "Paragraph ____ of the Complaint is admitted." If it is not true, you should say "Paragraph ____ of the Complaint is denied" and then explain what the true facts are. NOTE: It is not enough to just deny a paragraph of the Complaint. You must give some further explanation of why the paragraph is not true.
If a paragraph if the Complaint is partly true, you should explain exactly what you are admitting and exactly what you are denying and why.
If you don't know or can't find out whether a paragraph is true or false, you should state in your Answer that you have investigated the facts but still do not know whether the paragraph is true or false, using the language in paragraph 7 of Appendix E.
There may be other facts that you haven't stated in your Answer that explain why you do not owe the money claimed. For instance, you may have withheld payment for a product you bought because the product didn't work properly. Or you may believe that the other side in an accident case was at least partly at fault for the injuries claimed.
Facts such as these are called "New Matter." You should write them out in paragraph form after you finish responding to all of the paragraphs of the Complaint. Keep numbering the paragraphs.
Signing and Verification
After you have written out your response to each paragraph of the Complaint and any important additional facts ("New Matter"), you should sign your name.
Then you must write out the following statement at the bottom of your Answer and sign it:
Understanding that the making of any false statements would subject me to the penalties of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa. C.S. Sec 4904 (relating to unsworn falsification to authorities), I verify that the statement made in this Answer are true and correct, to the best of my knowledge, information and belief.
As you can see, your Answer has to be truthful. It is a crime to file an Answer that you know is not truthful.
If two people are appealing the District Justice's decision, both of them must sign this statement.
Filing and Serving the Answer
You must file your Answer with the Prothonotary and send a copy of it to the other side (the Plaintiff). Make sure you keep a copy for yourself.
GETTING A HEARING
If the other side (the Plaintiff) files a Complaint and you file an Answer, the next step in the case is usually an arbitration hearing. The hearing is like a trial, except that three lawyers act as the judge. The attorneys, who have no connection with the case, are appointed by the court. They listen to the evidence and decide who is right. Since there is no record of testimony or evidence made in the District Judge Court, the case will be heard all over again, as if there had never been a hearing in District Judge Court.
Either side may ask for an arbitration hearing. In most cases, if you are the person who has been sued, it is best to wait for the other side to ask for a hearing. After all, the other side might decide to abandon the case. If the other side never asks for a hearing, then the court usually dismisses the case after a year or two, after sending a notice to both sides.
If you decide to ask for a hearing, you should file a "Praecipe for Arbitration." You can get a form for this at the Prothonotary's office in most counties, or you can use the form attached as Appendix F. Your county may have special rules about what information this form must contain. There may be special rules that require a statement with information concerning witnesses, etc., be filed before the hearing. Check with the Prothonotary or Court Administrator.
You will be notified of the date and time of the hearing. At the hearing, you should make sure that you have:
(1). All the papers that have anything to do with the case. It is helpful to have four extra copies of all the papers, so that each of the three arbitrators and the other side can have a copy.
(2). All the witnesses who know anything about the case that you want to prove. If a witness won't agree to come to the hearing, you can get a subpoena from the Prothonotary. You should fill out the subpoena, make two copies of it, and hand the original to the witness. You also have to offer the witness 7 a mile (round trip) for travel expenses, and $5 a day as a witness fee. Fill out the back of one copy of the subpoena to show where, when and how you served it, and file this copy with the Prothonotary. The last copy is for your own records.
If you lose the arbitration hearing, you have the right to appeal to the Court and have a trial. That step is too complicated to explain in this pamphlet.
This booklet only gives the most basic information that may work in the simplest cases. The information may not be appropriate in all cases.
The rules for filing an appeal are somewhat different in different counties and can be changed by the courts or the legislature at anytime. To make sure that your rights are protected, it is best to have a lawyer represent you. If your local Legal Services office cannot help you, you should consider trying to hire a private attorney to handle your appeal.
MidPenn Legal Services in providing information which is currently appropriate. MidPenn Legal Services, in providing this information, is in no way agreeing or implying that it will represent individuals who use the enclosed information, nor is MidPenn Legal Services responsible for misuse of the information. This information is accurate at the time of preparation. MidPenn Legal Services assumes no responsibility for the total accuracy of this information other than on the date of preparation.