In Pennsylvania, the civil court system is the system which Pennsylvanians use to sue another person, business, or groups of persons, to get an award of money damages for wrongful actions (as opposed to the criminal court system, in which the Commonwealth brings actions against members of the public for breaking its laws). The civil litigation system is divided into three sections, the local magistrate courts, Common Pleas Court arbitration, and Common Pleas Court. Magistrate complaints are generally filed by members of the public in person, by going to the magistrate office; in most cases, both plaintiffs and defendants represent themselves at these cases. The limit of jurisdiction is for money damages of $12,000 or less. The second level, Common Pleas arbitration, is for money damages up to $25,000 (or $40,000, depending upon the type of case). Common Pleas arbitration complaints may be filed by individuals, but the rules governing the filing, answers, and hearings on these cases are much stricter and must be followed. Lawyers are more often involved in filing and trying Common Pleas Court arbitration cases. Common Pleas Court cases above the arbitration limits are almost always filed by lawyers and defended by lawyers. There is no limit to the money damages which may be sought in Common Pleas Court cases.
When a civil case is filed and decided at the magistrate level, if either party is dissatisfied with the outcome, they have a right to file an appeal to Common Pleas arbitration within 30 days. If the Plaintiff (the party who filed the lawsuit) is unhappy with the magistrate decision, he or she must file a complaint in the proper form at the time they file their appeal. If the dissatisfied party is the Defendant (the party who was sued in the lawsuit), when their appeal is served on the Plaintiff, the Plaintiff must file a complaint in the proper form within 20 days. Failure to file an appeal from a magistrate’s decision you as unhappy with within 30 days is an absolute bar to filing another lawsuit on the same issue at a later time. The tricky issue is when both parties have claims against each other at the magistrate’s hearing, and there are two judgments entered, one relating to each separate claim. If you are dissatisfied with how the magistrate ruled on your claim, and the opposing party files an appeal of the magistrate’s ruling on their claim, you must also appeal the magistrate’s ruling on your claim; the cases will be consolidated, but if you don’t appeal, you lose your right to make that same claim in the Common Pleas case.
When there is an appeal of the magistrate’s decision, the case is tried all over again in Common Pleas arbitration. The arbitration hearing is conducted in front of a panel of 3 lawyers; no judges are involved. Neither the testimony, the evidence, nor the result in the magistrate court has any effect at all on the Common Pleas court arbitration panel’s decision. In fact, you are not even allowed to mention what happened at the magistrate’s level in the Common Pleas case. The rules for the conduct of the Common Pleas case are much stricter; no hearsay testimony is permitted, and no documents may be submitted into evidence without the person who prepared the document there to testify about it. (There is an exception to bills and estimates of damage, but they MUST be submitted to the other side at least 3 weeks before the arbitration hearing.)
Finally, any party who is dissatisfied with their Common Pleas Court arbitration panel ruling may appeal to Common Pleas Court within 30 days and request that the case be heard by a judge or a jury. Again, if this happens, nothing that happened at the magistrate or arbitration level is relevant to the Common Pleas Court trial. It is a “de novo” (all over again) trial. After trial in Common Pleas Court, however, there are no more “de novo” trials. Anyone who is dissatisfied with a common Pleas Court judgment must file an appeal to the Superior Court, order the transcript of the hearing, and file a brief (legal argument) explaining the errors made by the court at the Common Pleas Court level which brought about a mistaken judgment. This is a very difficult burden to prove, and as a result most appeals are not granted.
We at Shah Law Group know that litigation is rarely the best, fastest, or most cost-efficient manner in which to resolve disputes, and we recommend that clients take the time to explore and discuss their options to in-court resolution of their disputes. We are always looking for creative solutions to client issues, to avoid litigation. When out-of-court resolution of issues cannot be accomplished, we work towards making the litigation process as cost-efficient as possible. However, our experience has taught us that the only way to achieve success in litigation is with thorough preparation; this is never cheap.