When May I Bring Suit Before a District Justice?
You may file suit with a District Justice if you have a complaint against a person or business and with to recover an amount of money totaling less than $4,000. This is called a civil lawsuit. The $4,000 limit does not include the court costs involved in the suit. If you are unsuccessful, you are entitled to be reimbursed for court costs. You should be aware that, even for claims of less than $4,000, you are entitled to sue in Common Pleas Court.
You may also be brought before a District Justice to answer a summary offense charge or a motor vehicle violation. These are called criminal actions. For more information, see the consumer pamphlets entitled, "What should I Know About Traffic Violations and Other Summary Offenses?" and "What Should I Know About Criminal Law?"
Are There Advantages to Suing in District Justice Courts Rather Than Common Pleas Court?
District Justice Courts are less formal, less expensive and faster than Common Pleas Courts. Also, you will need an attorney in Common Pleas Court. In District Justice Court, an attorney is not required, but it may be advisable to have one present for certain types of cases.
Where Can I Sue?
If you decide to sue in a District Justice Court, you must decide which District Justice has authority to handle the suit. There are rules which govern where a suit may be filed. The District Justice closes to you can advise you where to file. District Justices are listed in the yellow pages of the phone book under "District Justice" or "Justice of the Peace," their former designation.
How Should I Start the Law Suit?
Once you have found the correct office, the next step is to file a complaint on a standard form you can obtain from the District Justice. The form is reasonably easy to fill out. The important items on it are:
Although the complaint may be filed by mail, it is advisable to submit it personally to the District Justice. One reason is that the complaint has to be officially verified (NOTARIZED), and the District Justice can do this for you. In addition, it will be easier for the clerk to tell you whether your complaint is properly completed, and if it is not, how it should be corrected. It will also be easier to determine precisely what fees you must pay. Remember, if you succeed, the party you are costs of filing suits before a District Justice are:
- your name and address
- the name and address of the person or business you want to sue
- the amount of money you are suing for, including all expenses
- a short statement of why you believe you are entitled to the money. Be sure to provide enough information so the person you are suing knows why he or she is being sued.
Add $5 to the filing fee if your complaint is to be sent to the defendant by certified mail. If the complaint is to be personally served by a sheriff or constable, there will be a $15 fee.
- $10.00 for a suit involving less than $100
- $15.00 for a suit involving less than $101 - $300
- $27.50 for a suit involving less than $301 - $500
- $32.50 for a suit involving less than $501 - $4,000
- $32.50 for all landlord tenant suits
How is the Other Party Notified?
Once you have filed the complaint, the clerk will schedule a hearing to be held between 12 and 60 days from the time you file. The law requires that before the hearing, the other party must receive a copy of the complaint. This can be done in either of two ways:
- You can request the complaint be sent by certified mail. The letter will be delivered to the defendant and the receipt card will be returned to the District Justice as proof that it was received.
- The complaint can also be delivered by the sheriff for an additional fee which can be recovered like the others if you win the suit. Sometimes having the complaint personally served is more effective because the person to whom a certified letter is addressed may not be home or may refuse to accept it. The sheriff, on the other hand, can leave the paper with an adult resident of the defendant's house, a person in charge of the store, or officer of the corporation.
What Should I do Before the Hearing?
You should gather all documents and papers relating to the suit. It is also a good idea to line up supportive witnesses to be present at the hearing.
What Happens at the Hearing?
At the hearing, those present will be the District Justice, you (PLAINTIFF), your witnesses, possibly your lawyer, the defendant, defense witnesses and possibly the defendant's lawyer.
The District Justice will explain the procedure to you. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
During the hearing, you will be given an opportunity to tell what happened. Show any papers, bills, receipts or letters you have to the District Justice. You will probably be asked questions. Then your witnesses will be allowed to tell what they know about the case. The defendant will be given the same opportunity. You will also be permitted to ask questions of the defendant.
What Happens After the Decision is Made?
if you succeed, the other party may pay without question and is permitted to arrange to pay in installments, as set by the District Justice. However, the decision can be appealed within 20 days to Common Pleas Court, and you cannot collect your money until this time has passed.
If there is an appeal, a Notice of Intent to Appeal is filed with the prothonotary in the county courthouse. Copies of the notice will be served on both you and the District Justice who made the decision. The notice prevents you from collecting until the appeal is decided.
Remember, if the District Justice's decision is in favor of the defendant, you, likewise, have the right to appeal in the manner outlined above.
If appealed, the case will be heard from the beginning in Common Pleas Court. Since the procedure of this court is governed by more formal rules, the presence of an attorney is strongly advised.
What if No Appeal is Taken?
If the time for the appeal has elapsed and you still have not collected, ask the District Justice to issue an Order of Execution. This involves filling out a form which the District Justice then gives to a sheriff or constable. This official then attempts to collect the money owed to you. Any fees you pay will be charged to the other party when the money is collected.
An execution order permits a sheriff to levy on property, which means that the property can be sold to pay the debt. However, you should realized it is difficult to collect from someone with no property or money.
How Can I Locate an Attorney if I Wish to Consult One?
If you do not have a family lawyer and do not know how to find an attorney to assist you with your problem, a lawyer referral service can assist you. Depending on where you live, you may have a local referral service or you may be included in the Pennsylvania Lawyer Referral Service area. The referral service in your area will be listed in the yellow pages of the telephone directory under "Attorneys," "Lawyers," "Attorney Referral Service" or "Lawyer Referral Service." A complete list of Pennsylvania lawyer referral services is contained in the pamphlet in this series "What Should I Know About Finding a Lawyer?"
Special Note: This information has been issued to inform and not to advise. It is based upon Pennsylvania law. The statements are general, and individual facts in a given case may alter their application or involve other laws not referred to here.