Small Claims Court v. Court of Common Pleas – What’s the difference?

In Pennsylvania, there are two separate but related courses to obtaining relief from the Court in civil litigation matters.  One is small claims court, or what are called “District Magisterial Courts”.  The other is the Court of Common Pleas.  If your matter is solely for money damages and those damages are less than $12,000, you must use the small claims court.  If your matter is for something other than money damages, such as asking the Court to issue an injunction or some other relief, you must use the Court of Common Pleas.  If you are seeking money damages of more than $12,000, you may use the Court of Common Pleas but don’t have to use it if you are willing to settle for $12,000 or less.  For instance, if your matter is valued at $14,000 and you are willing to accept a judgment of $12,000 or less you can agree to waive your right to use the court of common pleas and take your matter before a district magistrate.

The differences between small claims court and the court of common pleas are significant.  Small claims court costs less in filing fees, there is no discovery between the parties and your matter will likely conclude in a matter of weeks or a few months.  The Court of Common pleas is much costlier in terms of filing and attorneys’ fees, broad and intrusive discovery is generally permitted and your matter will likely take many months, if not years, to conclude.  While small claims court may seem a more inviting venue for a lawsuit, there are several downsides:  small claims court judges are not necessarily lawyers.  They come from all walks of life and may have no legal training whatsoever prior to becoming a judge.  Additionally, there is generally a limited amount of time allotted to your hearing which may impair your ability to thoroughly present your case.

Before deciding whether to pursue your claim through small claims court or the court of common pleas, it is important to discuss with an attorney the pros and cons of both.  If you have questions regarding filing a civil lawsuit, contact me today for a free no obligation case evaluation.