Pennsylvania magistrate, also known as Magisterial District Courts or small claims court, handle civil cases that are less than $12,000, landlord and tenant complaints, as well as criminal cases. This article will focus on on civil complaints filed at the magistrate.
1: Service of the complaint
If you have received notice for certified mail from your MDJ (Magisterial District Judge), the plaintiff is trying to serve you with a complaint. The Plaintiff is the party who files the complaint. If you (the defendant) do not sign for the certified mail, the postal service will ask you to pick up the certified mail at the local post office. As an alternative, you can go to the local magistrate and pick up the complaint. If you do not receive the complaint, the magistrate will then send out a sheriff to serve you personally. Having a sheriff serve you may be embarrassing, but do not be afraid. The sheriff is not there to arrest you, but simply to ensure that the complaint was delivered by the rules of civil procedure.
2: The civil complaint
The civil complaint used in Pennsylvania magisterial district courts is a one page form that is completed by the plaintiff. The complaint will state a brief description why the Plaintiff filed the lawsuit. It will also contain the amount of money the plaintiff is asking for as well as the court fees. Sometimes the Plaintiff will attached certain documents with the complaint, but it is not required. The complaint also contains a notice that you need to tell the magistrate whether you intend to defend the case or not. Most magistrates will let you call then to give notice or you can send the form that comes with the complaint that says you intend to defend the case. After you notify the magistrate, they will in turn notify the plaintiff that you will be defending the case. If you do not notify the magistrate, and show up for the hearing, they will have to reschedule the case because the Plaintiff was not informed that you would be there. If you do not send in in your intent to defend and do not go to the hearing, the Plaintiff will win by default and doesn’t even have to show up!
Many people do not hire an attorney for the hearing at the magistrates, so often times neither the plaintiff or defendant is represented. If you do hire an attorney they will send in their “Entry of Appearance.” This lets the court and the other party know that an attorney will be representing you. Depending on the type of case that you have, an attorney can represent you without you being at the hearing. This happens most often when the attorney does not plan to introduce facts or evidence and is simply arguing that the other party does not have enough information to meet the burden of proof.