Pennsylvania Small Claims in Magisterial District Court: An Overview

Learn about small claims basics in Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court.

By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

Filing a claim in the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court, the court handling small claims matters in Pennsylvania can be a straightforward and inexpensive way to settle a dispute. But you must follow the rules to prevail.

Below are concise answers to common questions about the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court process. You'll learn about preparing and presenting your case, appealing a small claims decision, and collecting a money judgment. You'll also find links to more helpful small claims information at the end of the article.

How Does Pennsylvania Small Claims Court Work?

A small claims case starts by filing a claim with the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court. You'll serve a copy of the claim and court date on the "defendant," the person or company you're suing.

At the trial, you'll present evidence supporting your case. In response, the defendant could present a defense to your action or, if the defendant filed a crossclaim, submit evidence proving you owe the defendant money.

The judge will issue a money judgment to whoever proves they're entitled to an award. The money judgment allows the creditor to collect using property liens, wage garnishments, bank account levies, and property seizures.

What's the small claims court limit in the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court?

You can ask for up to $12,000 in a small claims action in the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court. Plaintiffs with claims exceeding the limit can use small claims court if they're willing to accept the $12,000 cap. Otherwise, they must file in a higher court.

Example. Faith, Emma, and Charlie each have personal injury cases and are considering filing in small claims court. Faith and Emma's medical bills exceed $20,000. Charlie's bills are $1,000. When researching small claims rules, they learn about the Pennsylvania $12,000 small claims limit. Here's what they decide to do next.

Faith, wanting $20,000 total compensation, hires a lawyer to file her case in a higher court. Although Charlie can recover his $1,000 in medical bills in small claims court, he also wants compensation for vehicle damage and extensive pain and suffering. Charlie hires a lawyer and files in a higher court. Emma is willing to forgo $8,000 to avoid lengthy litigation and files in small claims court, representing herself.

Can a landlord bring an eviction lawsuit in a Pennsylvania small claims court?

Evictions aren't heard in the small claims division of Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court. However, it's an excellent forum for other types of cases brought in small claims courts, too, such as property damage cases and breach of contract disputes.

Which Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court should I file my small claims action in?

Pennsylvania has many Magisterial District Courts, but you can't always pick the most convenient location. You must choose the proper court location or venue. Otherwise, the defendant can ask the court to transfer or dismiss your action.

In Pennsylvania, you can file where:

  • the defendant can be served
  • the cause of action arose
  • the transaction or occurrence took place, or
  • a corporation or partnership regularly conducts business, has its registered office, has its principal place of business, or where the transaction took place. (Go to Pennsylvania's Department of State webpage for company information.)

You might have more options. Most courts post venue rules on the court website.

Example. Bailey and her daughter traveled six hours to an amusement park for her daughter's birthday. While resting on a park bench, a toddler escaped her inattentive parent and splattered a messy ice cream cone on Bailey's designer suede bag. Although the appalled parent promised to forward the funds through CashApp or Venmo, the money never materialized. Bailey considered suing in small claims court but decided against it after learning she must file where the incident occurred or where the child's parents live, both of which were six hours away.

How much time do I have to file a case in small claims court in Pennsylvania?

You don't have an unlimited amount of time to file a lawsuit. You'll have to bring it within the statute of limitations period for the case type. But pinning down how much time you have to file isn't always as simple as reading the statute of limitations.

The time can stop and restart depending on various circumstances, and figuring out when it expires can be challenging. The process is known as "tolling" the statute of limitations, and it happens when a plaintiff or defendant is unavailable for a lawsuit. For instance, the personal injury statute won't begin running on a minor's injury until the child reaches 18 years of age and can sue without the help of a guardian. Learn more about calculating the statute of limitations and whether it's too late to sue.

Example. Frank constructed a fence for his friend Myra, but after several years, Myra still hadn't paid him the agreed amount. Because they had a written contract, Frank had proof of the amount Myra owed and filed an action in small claims court. However, Myra objected to the case because the contract called for payment five years earlier, and the state's statute of limitation period for contracts was four years. Because Frank did not file the case within four years, the small claims judge dismissed the case.

Example. While Frank was building Myra's fence, Malik was repairing her plumbing (she had recently purchased a fixer-upper). Malik also had a written contract with Myra, wasn't paid, and sued her in small claims court five years later. Unlike Frank, when Myra objected to the case, Malik was prepared. He presented proof that state law tolled the statutory period while Myra served a two-year prison sentence for fraud, leaving him a year to file. The court agreed and allowed the case to proceed.

Can an attorney represent a small claims claimant in Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court?

Yes. In Pennsylvania, lawyers can appear on behalf of small claims plaintiffs. However, you aren't required to hire a lawyer. Small claims court is more relaxed and easier to navigate than higher courts, and most people are comfortable pursuing claims "in pro per" or without counsel.

Does the defendant need to answer the small claims complaint?

No. In Pennsylvania, the defendant doesn't need to file a written answer with the court to prevent the plaintiff from winning an automatic default judgment. The defendant can show up at the trial date to defend the matter.

Example. Vincent sued Marina for the maximum small claims limit, knowing she wouldn't appear to dispute the debt. As expected, Marina didn't respond and lost by default. However, Vincent was surprised when the judge asked him to "prove up the case" by presenting proof of Marina's debt. Unprepared, all Vincent could do was tell the judge how much Marina owed, which he admitted was far less than he had requested. Because of the inconsistencies, the judge found Vincent's testimony unreliable and awarded him nothing.

Learn what happens if you get sued in small claims court.

Will I have a judge or jury trial in small claims court in Pennsylvania?

At the Magisterial District Court small claims hearing, a judge will hear your case. If either side asks for a jury trial in the Magisterial District Court, the court will transfer the case to a higher court. Jury trials aren't allowed in Philadelphia Municipal Court (other than on appeal).

If you transfer the case for a jury trial, be prepared to pay additional fees to help offset the costs of the jury. You'll lose your right to a jury trial if you fail to file the request and pay the fees before the deadline.

How to Prepare and Present a Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court Case

You'll want to explain what happened and present evidence supporting your version of the events and the amount of money lost.

What do I need to prove in my small claims case?

It will depend on the type of case. In most instances, you'll need to prove that the person you're suing harmed you and the amount of money it will take to right the situation. Research the "elements" of your case type to determine exactly what you must prove.

Tip. One of the most important things people forget to do is prove how much they're out of pocket. For instance, you'll likely provide medical bills if you were injured and repair estimates if you suffered property damage. Make sure you can prove how much it will take to fix the problem.

What type of evidence should I present in small claims court?

If you're suing someone who didn't comply with a written contract, you'll need copies of the contract and any correspondence exchanged. You might also want to present photos of shoddy work or damaged property.

If someone witnessed an event, bring them in. You might also need expert testimony to establish the defendant caused the problem if it isn't something that can be inferred. For instance, only a medical professional can testify about the cause of illness or injury, and you'd need a mechanic to verify most automotive repairs. Check with the court to see if you can provide a statement made under oath if the person is unavailable or charges too much for in-person testimony.

Learn about gathering evidence in support of your small claims case.

How should I organize my small claims presentation?

After providing the judge with a short case description, you'll likely present the facts chronologically. If you're afraid you'll forget something or are worried you'll ramble on, write out your presentation and read it when it's your turn. However, you'll likely make a better impression if you speak naturally, using a bullet point list for reference when needed. Either way, practicing beforehand is the key to a polished presentation.

Also, it's best to cover each point concisely yet fully, with as little emotion as possible. You'll also want to avoid jumping in if the other side says something incorrect. Instead, make a note and address it when it is your turn to speak.

What Happens After Presenting a Pennsylvania Small Claims Case

The court might announce the winner immediately after the trial, but it's more likely that you'll find out who prevailed by mail. Your next steps will depend on whether you win or lose.

Can I appeal a Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court case?

Yes. Pennsylvania law allows either party to file an appeal within 30 days of entry of judgment. You'll want to find out how you'll receive notice of the entry of judgment. In many small claims courts, the clerk sends a notification by mail, but you'll need to verify the procedure used by your court. You must comply with this and other rules, so do your research and count the dates accurately, or talk with a local attorney.

Example. Warren received the small claims judgment in the mail and filed an appeal 30 days later. Warren missed the deadline to file the appeal because the judgment was entered 34 days before Warren received it.

Will the court collect my judgment for me?

No. You'll be responsible for all collection efforts. Before pursuing a small claims court case, you'll want to evaluate whether the defendant has assets you can seize after winning the case. A debtor with nothing you can take is called "judgment proof," and pursuing an action won't make sense unless the debtor acquires property and income in the future.

Learn more about determining whether you can collect before suing in small claims court.

Can state exemption laws stop me from seizing the defendant's property?

Yes. Every state allows debtors to protect essential property from creditors, such as household goods, a percentage of income, and some equity in a car and home, although the specific property protected varies greatly. You'll find these protections in your state's exemption statutes. In most states, the same exemptions protect assets from creditors in and outside bankruptcy.

Learn more about why you shouldn't sue unless you can collect the judgment.

How to Find More About Pennsylvania Small Claims Court

Most courts include filing instructions on the court website or provide self-help services. For additional resources, refer to the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Magisterial District Court pamphlet or the Pennsylvania General Assembly webpage. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1123 and 1515; Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, Rules 400 to 405, 1002, 1006, 2179; Rules of Civil Procedure Governing Actions and Proceedings Before Magisterial District Judges, Rules 301 to 342; and Philadelphia Municipal Court Rules of Civil Practice, Rules 101 to 144.)

For detailed help with case filing, court strategy, and collecting a money judgment, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court by Attorney Cara O'Neill (Nolo).

Need More Help?

Did you know Nolo has made the law accessible for over fifty years? It's true, and we want to ensure you find what you need. Below, you'll find more articles explaining how small claim cases work. And don't forget that our small claims homepage is the best place to start if you have other questions!

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We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all issues or the facts of your case, and the law can change. The best way to protect yourself is by hiring a local lawyer.

Updated November 21, 2023