Magisterial District Judge Court - Filing Suit

Authored By: Northwestern Legal Services LSC Funded

Questions and Answers When Suing In Magisterial District Judge Court

Northwestern Legal ServicesIf someone owes you money ($8,000 or less) 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 moved.

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 $8,000 or less at issue. Disputes for the title of real estate must be filed in 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 or regularly conducts business. Lawsuits relating to landlord/tenant matters can also be filed in the district where the leased property is located. There are special rules for where you must file the case if the defendant is an incorporated business or a government party. The Magisterial District Judge will have a copy of the rules. You should ask to see and read them if you are unsure where to file.

How Much is the Filing Fee?

To start the lawsuit, a filing fee of $50. to $110. is common. The exact amount depends on the amount for which you sue. If you are successful, the party you sue will be required to reimburse you for the costs you pay to file the suit.

May the Filing Fee be Waived?

Yes, you may file a Petition to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (IFP) to have the filing fees waived. In forma pauperis simply means that you cannot pay the cost of filing the action. The Magisterial District Judge 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 the petition, whether the fee should be waived. He or she must do so within five days of your filing the petition.

What Do I File?

The paper you file to start the case is a Civil Complaint (a copy of the Civil Complaint Form is attached so you can see what it looks like and what information you will have to put in the form when you file it with the Magisterial District Judge). The Magisterial District Judge will give you a complaint form. Write the names and addresses of the parties (if the other party is married, sue their spouse as well) and how much money is at issue. Include 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. Because you may have to pay for personal service, you might want to ask that the complaint be served by mail (it is much cheaper, though possibly slower).

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. You have a right to ask the Magisterial District Judge to postpone the hearing-known as a continuance. If there is a problem with the date on which they schedule the hearing, you or the defendant may ask the Magisterial District Judge to reschedule it. However, the Magisterial District Judge does not have to grant the request.

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 your witnesses testify the District Justice 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.

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. If the other party objects, 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 defense or 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.

1. 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.

2. 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 issues 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, and you are not paid, 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.

Sample Civil Complaint [PDF]

Last Review and Update: Jul 31, 2008