Pennsylvania Small Claims Court

Reviewed by Marcia Stewart, Co-Author of Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home and Every Landlord's Legal Guide

The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving relatively small amounts of moneyfor example, if you want to get your landlord to return your security deposit, or an auto repair shop to give you a refund for shoddy work. Pennsylvania also allows landlords to file eviction cases in small claims court.

Court procedures are simple, inexpensive, quick, and informal. Most people who appear in small claims court present their own case and don't have a lawyer.

Small claims court rules, including maximum amounts for which you can sue, vary by state. This article provides an overview of small claims cases in Pennsylvania, from the perspective of the person filing the court case (the plaintiff). In Pennsylvania, small claims cases are hear by a magisterial district judge (or municipal court in Philadelphia). We use the term small claims court in this article to refer to both types of courts.

Who Can Sue in Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania

If you are at least 18 years old (or an emancipated minor), you can file a claim in small claims court. Associations, partnerships, and corporations are typically allowed to bring actions in small claims court, but check with your small claims court clerk for special rules, such as restrictions on lawsuits filed by collection agencies.

Dollar Limit on Pennsylvania Small Claims Cases

To bring your case in small claims court in Pennsylvania, you must be seeking to recover $12,000 or less (not including court costs). If you want to sue for more than the limit, you have to go to a different court, which may not be worth it given the complicated rules and costs of hiring an attorney.

Suing for Something Other Than Money

With a few exceptions, small claims courts in Pennsylvania can only award money, up to the $12,000 limit. If you need an order to make someone do (or stop doing) something, other courts are available. For example, if you want to file for divorce or seek higher child support, you will need to go to a family law court.

Deadline for Filing a Small Claims Case in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania state law (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5501 et. seq.), there are limits (called statute of limitations) on the amount of time you have to bring a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for most cases in Pennsylvania is either two or four years, depending on the type of case, but you’ll want to contact your small claims court or do some legal research to verify the limit for your specific case.

You can consult an attorney if you’ve missed the deadline and still want to pursue legal action, although there are very limited situations when you might be able to do so.

Filing a Small Claims Suit in Pennsylvania

The first step in filing a small claims case is to obtain and fill out the necessary forms and pay the required fees. You’ll need some basic information to complete the paperwork, like the name and address of the person or business you’re suing (the defendant) and some details about your claim including the date the claim arose and the amount you intend to ask for in damages. Check with the small claims court where you are filing your action to make sure you have all the information you need and fees required to start your lawsuit.

Most small claims actions are filed in the small claims court in the county and state where the person being sued lives, or where the business is located if the defendant is a business. Rules about where you can bring your lawsuit vary depending on the situation and you may have other choices, such as filing where the incident giving rise to the claim occurred.

Clarify what forms (typically, a complaint and summons) you need to complete and how to serve them on the person or business you are suing (the defendant).

Small Claims Trials

After the complaint has been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their cases for court. Careful preparation is key to success. This involves:

  • writing a compelling statement

  • gathering documents and evidence, such as contracts, credit card statements, and photographs

  • selecting reliable witnesses (people who saw what happened or experts on the subject matter of the claim involved), who will come to court to tell what they have seen or heard

  • deciding on the order in which you will present your evidence, and

  • preparing what you will say in court.

The Court Judgment

The decision in a small claims court case (the judgment) will usually be mailed to the parties, usually a few days or a few weeks after the case is heard. There are exceptions however, typically if one side doesn’t show up and the other wins by default (default judgments are often announced right in the courtroom).

If you win, and the judgment is in your favor, the judge will order the other party to pay a specified amount of money. If things go smoothly, you’ll get your money and that’s it. But sometimes, the person (or business) that lost the case may not have the money to pay the judgment, or may simply refuse to pay it. In that situation, you may need to take legal action (and spend money) to enforce the judgment. The court won't collect the judgment for you.

Filing an Appeal

Pennsylvania law allows either party to file an appeal within 30 days (ten days in eviction cases). Check with the small claims court where you filed your action for details on the appeal process.

Working With a Lawyer in Pennsylvania Small Claims Court

An attorney can represent you in small claims court in Pennsylvania (check court rules for details). Even if you decide to represent yourself, you may want to seek a lawyer’s advice about your case—for example, if you are suing your landlord for the return of your security deposit, you may want to consult an experienced tenants’ attorney to make sure you have a strong case. Or if your dispute involves another business, you may want advice from a business lawyer. Check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, to find a Pennsylvania attorney who specializes in your type of legal issue.

More Information on Small Claims Court in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Bar Association website has a helpful pamphlet, “Bringing Suit Before a Magisterial District Judge”; if you’re filing a case in Philadelphia, check out the guide provided by the Philadelphia Municipal Court. To read the statutes themselves, check out 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1123, 1515.

For detailed information on every phase of small claims court, from preparing a winning case to collecting money if you win, see Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can an attorney assist me with filling out my small claims court forms?

  • What is “service” and how is it done?

  • What should I do if I can't make the court date that I set when I filed my complaint?

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