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My specific situation applies to Pennsylvania. I live in Washington County and the defendant lives in Allegheny county. But a generic answer applicable nationwide would be welcome (if possible).


My Expectations

I've been working through my first small claims case, and am surprised by how inaccessible the process is, complicated by the lack of direct information online and surprisingly unhelpful attitude of the court staff. When making this claim I had a naive expectation of the process as follows:

A) Fill out a form online or in-person to sue the defendant, and be contacted to schedule a court date after turning that in.

B) Arrive at court and win or lose the case.

C) Have my winnings collected by the court and sent to me.

C-alt) Receive a letter that it was appealed which includes a new court date.

Return to [B] for next level court...


Reality

However, by following the advice provided by the few helpful members of the court staff I could find, I have instead followed this process:

1) Fill out a form in person to file my small claims case with my local magistrate, which I understand is the first level court (similar to step [A]).

2) Wait and receive a court date via mail (similar to step [A]).

3) Call just before the date to see if the defendant declared an 'intent to defend' (I think it was called). When they didn't I did not need to show for court and received a 'default judgement'; in short I won (similar to step B above; and here's where it really diverges)

4) Wait 30 days (the appeals period), and then I need to take action and contact the court get a notice of judgement (I think it was called) (part of [C]).

5) Then I was told to go to the prothonotary (new word for me) and get a certification of judgement on file. Then I should take a copy of that an hour away to file it with the courthouse in the defendants county. My understanding that this doesn't actually do anything to help me collect my money; it's just part of the process (part of [C]).

6) Then I need to get a writ of execution, which I believe is a court order for the defendant to pay me? I think this is supposed to help me collect my judgement, but I don't know what to do with that as I never made it to this stage (part of [C]).

4-alt) Receive a notice of appeal from the county court (I guess this is the next level court, so part of [C-alt]). Something about a 'praecipe (another new word for me) to enter rule to file complaint and rule to file'. The defendant appealed so I followed this path.

5-alt) Drive to the county prothonotary and file another form. There is no title but it appears to be a brand new complaint (part of [C-alt]?).

6-alt) After giving that new form to the court, I was instructed to take a copy home and mail it to the defendant's address. I don't know why the court didn't do this (part of [C-alt]?).

7-alt) Unknown. I was told to take the next step (whatever that is) after they respond, which apparently comes directly to me. It was not made clear what I should do if they don't respond or how long I need to give them to respond. I am now stuck at this step (I have no idea if this is part of [C-alt] or if I've now completely diverged from my initial expectations).


Explaination

Although it's been explained to me that I need to complete these steps, I don't actually understand what I'm doing when I do them. It's like telling a child to fill a pot with water, then put it on the stove, then turn on the stove, and so on without explaining that the purpose is to make spaghetti or explaining why and how the noodles get cooked. This is especially true at steps 4 through 6 and 4-alt through 7-alt and beyond for me.

It would be helpful to me, and probably many others, if I could understand what each of these actions/forms/steps represented and meant and why I'm doing them. I'm leery of following a series of steps I know nothing about, and would rather not have this lack of understanding prevent me from being able to seek justice in the future. And given the limits of small claims cases and low dollar values of many of the injustices us commoners face on a daily basis, in contrast to the high price of law advice, speaking with a lawyer would cost more than a win would provide and is thus an impractical option.

A synopsis of the administrative steps taken as part of a small claims case would provide a lot of clarity and a solid foundation to launch from.

  • 2
    This is the sort of question that could fill a book, and indeed there are many books explaining small claims. Have you looked at any? The publisher Nolo is generally well recommended. – Nate Eldredge Jun 23 '17 at 17:40
  • I think sometimes even lawyers fail to realize how much this process varies from one state to another. In some internet forum I encountered a lawyer in California who didn't know that in some states besides his own, a losing plaintiff can appeal from the decision of a small claims court. As a winning plaintiff in a small claims case in Minnesota, I found that if the defendant didn't pay the court by the time the deadline for appealing expired, I could have the court issue a "writ of execution" that I took the sheriff's department, and the sheriff's department would confiscate the.... – Michael Hardy Jun 23 '17 at 19:51
  • .... money from the defendant's bank account. But I had to tell them at which bank this was located. If I couldn't do that, I could get the court to issue an order to the defendant to disclose information about assets. – Michael Hardy Jun 23 '17 at 19:53
  • I should add that the clerk of the court made a booklet available explaining how these processes work. – Michael Hardy Jun 23 '17 at 19:55
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    Just in general, I think the major error in your expectations was C. "Collecting your winnings" just isn't something that courts do. They just decide the defendant owes you money; it's still up to you to actually collect it. The court will give you certain tools to help with that process but only if you ask. – Nate Eldredge Jun 24 '17 at 14:35
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The process of collecting a judgment once you win one is really no different in small claims court than it is in any other court, and as you note, it isn't easy. You may decide that once you have won, that it is easier to turn the judgment over to a collection agency or an attorney to collect (admittedly at a price).

Often, garnishment of wages and bank accounts is the easiest way to collect, although placing a judgment lien on their real property (which you probably did in step 5) works too if you are willing to wait until the property is sold.

Of course, once there is an appeal, you are basically back to square zero and have to establish that the default judgment is valid and that they have no shown valid grounds for setting it aside (which they probably haven't), by following the proper appellate process.

Many court houses and public libraries have books on the small claims process and on enforcing judgments (with books on the latter often entitled "creditor's rights").

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