Most religions are in agreement that we should all love our neighbor, but occasionally we find that in the midst of conflict, the only way to resolve a dispute is to sue our neighbor.
There are times when people feel they cannot walk away from a dispute and must take a principled stand. The court system, since time immemorial, serves as the place to go to settle issues that cannot be resolved by the parties themselves.
That is one part of the lawyer's industry—conflict resolution. But if for every dispute you had to each hire a lawyer and go through a lengthy procedure—the full-blown trial process in the county common pleas court, then for smaller matters (smaller in dollar value, not emotional value), there would be no effective method to bring it to a head and resolve it once and for all.
The parties might be tempted to take the matter into their own hands. Chaos ensues. The small claims process was created for that situation.
In Pennsylvania (outside of Philadelphia, where a slightly different system exists), claims of $8,000 or less may be resolved by the lowest level of the court system, a single district justice in a township office. The District Justice has limited jurisdiction: he or she can hear summary offenses (like traffic tickets), landlord-tenant claims, contract and certain other civil claims that don't exceed $8,000, as well as handling a variety of criminal matters.
You must file your claim with the District Justice office where either the claim occurred, or where the defendant lives. The paperwork is simple: a one-page form, available from the District Justice's office or online, where the plaintiff is asked to briefly describe his or her claim.
The filing fee is about $56 at last check. Once the complaint is filed with the court, it sets a hearing 30-60 days out, and then serves the defendant with a copy of the complaint and asks them to file a written answer. If the defendant responds and shows up at the hearing, then the matter continues. If the defendant is served but does not show up, then he or she loses by default and a judgment is entered. If the defendant is not served, the hearing is delayed until the defendant can be served.
At the hearing, the procedure is simplified: the claimant is asked to tell his or her case; and let any witnesses testify to what they saw or heard. When the plaintiff is done, then the defendant presents witnesses and can choose to testify as to why he or she should not be found liable to pay the claimant. Each side can cross examine the witnesses from the other side. Typically the District Justice may ask questions as well, to try to narrow the focus to just the legal issues that he or she must decide.
When each party has had their say, the District Justice will thank the parties and send them on their way with the promise of a decision within several days. The District Justice decides the case, based on the evidence presented at the hearing, and puts the decision (but not the reasons) on a one page form that shows who won, and how much.
A winning claimant also is entitled to the filing fees and service fees they have paid out. This decision is promptly mailed out within a few days of the hearing. A small claim can therefore be filed, heard and decided within a 60 day period. That is one of its main virtues—the parties have aired their differences and an independent third party had heard both sides and made a binding decision.
Each party is entitled to bring an attorney; but at the low end of these types of claims, unless your cousin Vinnie is a lawyer and owes you a favor, it may not be cost effective to hire a lawyer and pay them to prepare the case and attend the hearing and do any necessary follow up.
That's another one of the virtues of the small claims process—you do not need a lawyer. One or both of you can show up without a lawyer (though if one party is a corporation, then they must be represented either by their officers or a lawyer).
The end game: if you win, you get a judgment—a legally enforceable order to pay a specific amount. If the defendant does not voluntarily pay, then the claimant must have the sheriff go out to the defendant's home and levy on personal property in order to sell it and pay the judgment.
Also, the defendant can appeal the decision within thirty days of entry of the judgment, but that typically requires hiring an attorney to file the necessary paperwork and begin to navigate through the much more complex procedure of a trial court. If an appeal is timely made, then the next trial is "de novo" — nothing that happened at the District Justice office matters. There is simply a new trial.
Having attended an arbitration hearing recently, and seen parties representing themselves, here are some recommendations if you will go to small claims court without an attorney:
1. Prepare in advance. If you find yourself involved in any dispute, it is a good idea to begin making your record - keep track of each conversation, and what each party said - buy a small notebook to keep it organized in one place. Make a paper trail: either dated notes, or a follow up letter saying "as we discussed on January 29, 2011, you said you would pay me the $50 you owe me by next week." A year later, your testimony as to exact dates and times and conversation and specific letters that went unanswered will be more persuasive.
2. Arrive on time: if you are not there when the case is called, you lose.
3. Look your best, and present your case in an organized way. Usually, a chronological account of what happened is best for most claims. Have copies of each document you want to present - a copy for the judge, one for the other party and one for you. Have the original document with you to be able to show to the judge.
4. For each item of damages you claim, you need to prove it: a witness, a written receipt, a phone record or other writing. Written proof is more persuasive than a year old hazy memory.
5. Be polite and civil. To the judge, to your witnesses, to the other party and their witnesses. It's simply good manners.
When you are in conflict with another, you may always choose to turn the other cheek, but if you find that you must stand on principle, or must right a wrong done to you, then for those claims below the dollar threshold, the doors of justice are open to you to quickly and inexpensively have your day in court.
©2012 Douglas P. Humes
Doug Humes has been a practicing attorney in Pennsylvania since 1980. He has experience in real estate, community, corporate and small business law, and estate planning. In 2003, he opened his private general practice at the Millridge Manor House in Bryn Mawr. Doug is also a Pennsylvania notary public and offers that service as an accommodation to clients and Millridge residents. You can contact him at 610-525-7150, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.