If someone owes you money you may sue them in Magisterial District Judge Court. Common reasons to sue are for the return of a security deposit, or for the value of property a landlord refuses to give back to the tenant after the tenant moves.
What is a Magisterial District Judge?
A Magisterial District Judge is a locally elected official who decides civil lawsuits. The Magisterial District Judge used to be called a District Justice and before that a Justice of the Peace.
Do I Need an Attorney?
No. The system is designed to work without attorneys.
How Much Can I Sue For?
Magisterial District Judges hear cases in which there is $12,000 or less at issue. Disputes concerning real estate sales and distribution of an estate after someone passes away cannot be filed at Magisterial District Judge court, but must be filed in the county Court of Common Pleas.
Where Should I File a District Justice Action?
You can bring the case in the district in which the party you are suing lives, regularly conducts business or where the events occurred that are the basis of the lawsuit. Corporations can also be sued in the district where they are incorporated or where their principal place of business is located. You can find the geographical area covered by each Magisterial District Judge at the following website: www.pacourts.us/courts/minor-courts/magisterial-district-judges/
Do I Have to Pay to File the Lawsuit?
Yes. The fee to file the lawsuit depends on the amount you claim is owed. You also must pay the cost to have the lawsuit served on the defendant and may have to pay other state mandated fees as well. The fees have to be paid up front when you file the suit, but will be added to the judgment the defendant is required to pay if the Magisterial District Judge finds in your favor. If you are filing a countersuit, also known as a cross-complaint, to a lawsuit filed against you, there is no filing fee, but you may have to pay other state mandated fees and the cost to have the countersuit served on the other party.
May the Filing Fee be Waived?
Maybe. You complete a request to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (IFP) to seek waiver of the filing fees. The Magisterial District Judge’s office should have forms available to request IFP status. If not, you may use the IFP form attached to this pamphlet. The IFP form requests information about your family size, income and expenses. The Magisterial District Judge will decide, based upon the information in your request, whether the fees are waived. The Magisterial District Judge must make a decision within five days of your filing the request.
What Do I File?
The paper you file to start the case is a Civil Complaint (a copy of the Civil Complaint form with instructions is included in this pamphlet so you can see what it looks like and detailed information you will have to put in the form when you file it with the Magisterial District Judge). You will need to know the names and addresses of the parties (if the other party is married sue their spouse as well), how much money you want to sue for and provide a brief summary of why you are owed the money in the proper space in the Complaint. For example:
“My landlord, Mr. Smith, failed to return my security deposit to me after I moved.”
The defendant may file a countersuit against you for money he or she feels you owe them. The Magisterial District Judge will hear your lawsuit and the countersuit at the same time. You will have to defend yourself against any claim made in a countersuit. Before filing a lawsuit you should consider whether the person you are suing may have a valid countersuit they could file against you, especially if their claim might be worth more than yours. If that is the case, you may not want to file a lawsuit, especially if the other person is not likely to sue you anyway.
How Does the Defendant Find Out About the Lawsuit?
After you file the complaint, the Magisterial District Judge’s office will serve it on the defendant, either in person or by mail. If you have to pay for service, ask for the complaint to be served by mail as mail service is less expensive.
When Will the Hearing be Set?
The Magisterial District Judge will set a date for the hearing and send a written notice of the date to you and to the defendant. The hearing must be set for not less than 12 days and not more than 60 days after the complaint is filed. If you need to change the hearing date, called a continuance, you have the right to do so one time under the court rules. Subsequent continuances are at the discretion of the Magisterial District Judge and only for good cause shown. The same rules apply to the defendant. A continuance(s) cannot extend the date of the hearing more than 90-days from the date you file the Complaint.
How Should I Prepare for My Case?
Presenting the case is a matter of common sense. You should make a written outline or checklist to use at the hearing. You want to be sure you ask all the questions and present all the evidence you want the Magisterial District Judge to consider.
What Happens at the Hearing?
At the hearing, you will be the first to present testimony. After you and each witness testifies the Magisterial District Judge will give the other party a chance to ask questions of each person who testifies. The other party and his or her witnesses will testify after your side of the case has been presented. After the other party and each of his or her witnesses testifies, you may question them. The Magisterial District Judge may ask questions of the witnesses or you and the other party anytime. It is important not to interrupt the Magisterial District Judge or a witness unless you are making a legal objection to the testimony being presented. Remember, all testimony is under oath so it is important that you tell the Magisterial District Judge the truth to the best of your ability.
May I Bring Documents?
Yes, you can bring any documents that help prove your case. Any document important for the case must be presented at the hearing. The Magisterial District Judge will not give you a chance to go home and get any documents you forget to bring to the hearing. The Magisterial District Judge cannot consider written statements from people who do not come to the hearing to testify if the other party objects. However, the Magisterial District Judge can consider a bill, estimate, receipt, canceled check or bank statement if it helps prove your case or defend against a counterclaim. (for example: a bill from a plumber or an estimate from an exterminator).
What If Someone I Want to Be a Witness Does Not Want to Come to the Hearing?
You have the right to get subpoenas from the Magisterial District Judge. A subpoena requires a witness to come to the hearing even if he or she does not want to come. If you request it in the subpoena, the witness can also be required to bring documents needed to prove your case. You should obtain and serve subpoenas as soon as possible after you file your Civil Complaint to be sure that the witnesses get them in time for the hearing.
May I Object to Something a Witness is Saying?
Yes. The most common objections are relevancy and hearsay.
- You can object to a statement that does not have anything to do with the case and is, therefore, not relevant. Example: The defendant testifies that they arrested your father fifteen years ago for drunk driving. That is not relevant to the eviction proceeding.
- You can also object to hearsay. Example: The landlord testifies that your neighbor said to the landlord he saw your son breaking a window. A witness can only testify to what he or she actually saw, not what someone else said they saw.
You must make your objection at the time the witness is giving testimony that is not relevant or is hearsay. To object, interrupt the witness’ testimony by stating: "I object because the testimony of the witness is (hearsay) (not relevant)."
When will the District Justice Decide?
After all the testimony, the Magisterial District Judge will decide the case. The Magisterial District Judge may issue a decision in court after taking all the evidence. If not, the Magisterial District Judge must decide within five days and send a copy of the decision to each party.
What If I Do Not Agree With the District Justice's Decision?
You have the right to appeal a decision with which you do not agree. You should consult an attorney about appealing. The appeal must be filed within 30 days of the decision. To appeal a judgment for possession, it must be filed within 10 days of the decision. The decision date is either the day of the hearing or, if it is a written decision, the date of the written decision.
What if No Appeal Is Filed?
If the Magisterial District Judge grants a money judgment, you are not paid and the other party has not filed an appeal, you can go to the Magisterial District Judge after thirty (30) days and request an Order of Execution. The constable or a sheriff's deputy will serve the Order of Execution and levy the personal property of the person who owes the money. The constable or sheriff's deputy will then list nonexempt personal property to sell to pay the judgment.
We have attempted to insure the accuracy of the information in this pamphlet at the time it was created or revised. However, the law does change, sometimes quickly and unexpectedly. Therefore, you should consult an attorney before taking or refraining from any action based on the information in this pamphlet.
Revised: November 2018