Magisterial District Court Q&A
Magisterial District Court Q&A
What is a Magisterial District Judge?
A Magisterial District Judge is a locally elected official who can decide small civil lawsuits such as landlord-tenant matters. The Magisterial District Judge used to be called a Magistrate or Justice of the Peace.
Do I need an attorney?
No. Attorneys are not required during the hearing. However, if you would prefer to have an attorney present, you may retain one and bring them.
Should I go to the Magisterial District Court hearing?
Yes! If you are late or fail to appear at the hearing, a judgment may be entered against you by default. Meaning, if you fail to show up, you could lose the hearing and be required to pay the judgment entered against you. Your presence is vital at the hearing, even if someone other than the court says that the hearing was canceled. In addition, the hearing gives you the chance to present your defense or cross-complaint against the other party. If you cannot go on the scheduled date of the hearing or an emergency arises, call the Magisterial District Court’s office and ask if the hearing can be rescheduled.
If you have a good reason for being late or missing the hearing, you must file a petition promptly after learning of the default judgment, and you must have a valid, meritorious claim of defense.
What is a “Defense”?
A defense is your reason(s) why allegations brought against you are not true. You will not need to file any papers in order to be able to present your defense. A common defense is that a landlord did not give the tenant proper notice to vacate the rental unit in accordance with the lease. If a tenant has a written lease, the landlord is required by law to give the tenant notice in accordance with the lease. If you do not have a written lease, the law establishes the amount of time a landlord must give you. See Eviction Notice Timetables. Another common defense is that the apartment had serious defects. Whatever your defense, you will need documentation and/or witnesses to prove your defense.
What is a Plaintiff?
A plaintiff is the person bringing the lawsuit, the person who is suing the defendant. The defendant is the person being sued.
What is a “Counterclaim”?
A counterclaim is a claim that the other party owes you money. For example, if a tenant paid for repairs (after notifying the landlord) in order to make the dwelling habitable and the landlord does not reimburse the tenant for the costs, the tenant may file a counterclaim. It must be filed with a Civil Complaint Form at the Magisterial District Court’s office. There is no fee for filing the counterclaim, but the person filing the counterclaim will have to pay for the cost of serving the counterclaim on the other party. If you plan to file a counterclaim, you should file it as soon as you receive notice of the hearing. Both the landlord’s complaint and your counterclaim will be decided at the hearing.
How should I prepare for my hearing?
If you have a lawyer, you should go over the information that will be presented at the hearing with your lawyer. If you do not have an attorney, you should make a checklist of important points and a sequential outline of the things that happened. Be brief and to the point. Be ready to explain each item of evidence. Practice telling your side of the case. If you have taken photos, you will need to bring them to the hearing. You should be able to say who took the photos and when the photos were taken. Dress your best and arrive on time for the hearing.
What will happen at the hearing?
At the hearing, all testimony is under Oath. The Plaintiff (the person who sued you) is allowed to testify first. Witnesses may also testify on their behalf. After the Plaintiff is done testifying, you will have a chance to ask questions of the people who testified. You are not required to ask them any questions. You will also be given an opportunity to present your case and your witnesses. Say “Your Honor I would like to present a defense.” or “Your Honor, I would like to ask Mr. or Ms. X a question.” You and your witnesses can be questioned by the Magisterial District Judge or by the Plaintiff.
Remember to maintain your composure and be polite. Be brief and to the point. Try not to ramble or the judge may cut you off. Address all of your questions and comments to the judge using “Your Honor” as a formal form of address. If you wish to ask a question of another party, first ask permission from the judge to ask a question. Do not interrupt the judge or the other party. You will have an opportunity to speak and explain your case.
May I object to something a witness is saying?
Yes. The two most common objections are Relevancy and Hearsay.
Relevancy Objection: The tenant or landlord may object if the information presented is not relevant to the situation that the hearing is intended to resolve. Example: The landlord testifies that your brother was arrested 10 years ago for assault. Say politely but firmly. “Your Honor, I object. That is not relevant.”
Hearsay Objection: You may also object to testimony about statements that were made by people who are not at the hearing. This is called “hearsay” and should not be allowed. Example: A witness testifies that a neighbor told him that she saw you breaking a window. Say, “Your Honor, I object. That is hearsay.”
Be careful not to interrupt the Magisterial District Judge unless you are making a legal objection to testimony being presented.
May I Bring Documents?
Yes, you can bring any documents that help prove your case. Any document important for the case must be presented at the hearing. The Magisterial District Judge will not give you a chance to go home and get any documents you forget to bring to the hearing. The Magisterial District Judge cannot consider written statements from people who do not come to the hearing to testify if the other party objects to the written statements. If someone has something important to say about your case, he/ she will need to attend the hearing.
However, the Magisterial District Judge can consider a bill, estimate, receipt, canceled check or bank statement if it helps prove your defense or counterclaim. Be sure to bring your lease and any relevant correspondence between you and your landlord. Bring photos and witnesses.
Can I subpoena someone to appear at the hearing?
Yes. You have the right to subpoena witnesses. You may wish to subpoena a code enforcement officer or housing inspector or a repair person to testify about the condition of your apartment. A subpoena is a document that requires an individual to come to the court and testify even if they do not want to come. The witness can also be subpoenaed to bring certain documents needed to prove your defense or your counterclaim. You should obtain and serve subpoenas as soon as possible to be sure the witnesses get them in time for the court hearing.
What happens after the hearing?
The Magisterial District Judge will make a decision either at the hearing or by mail within three (3) days. If the judgment is in the tenant’s favor, the landlord is required to do what the Magisterial District Judge orders. If the judgment is in favor of the landlord, the tenant is required to do what the Magisterial District Judge orders. See Eviction: Judgment
What if I do not agree with the Magisterial District Court’s Decision?
You have the right to appeal a judgment entered against you. Appeals are filed with the Prothonotary at the County Courthouse. See Eviction: Appeal Process
What Should I Do If the House or Apartment I’m Renting Goes Into Foreclosure or Is Sold at Sheriff Sale?
If your landlord stops paying the mortgage, foreclosure proceedings may begin. If the owner of a property fails to make a payment arrangement on municipal debt levied on the property, that property may be sold at a Sheriff Sale to allow the municipality to collect on that unpaid debt. These debts can include outstanding water and sewer bills, school taxes, and property taxes.
When a tenant is living in a property that has been foreclosed or sold at Sheriff sale, the new owner (including a bank) must abide by certain rules. The new owner cannot change the locks or otherwise take action to force the occupants out into the street. You can only be locked out by a Court Order. The owner must go to Court and file an Action in Ejectment. This is completely separate from the foreclosure proceedings and it has similarities but is different from a landlord-tenant eviction proceeding.
- If notices of a possible foreclosure are delivered to or posted on your property, contact the sender right away and let them know that you are a tenant. You should also contact your landlord.
- You may get confusing information from your landlord about the foreclosure. For example, the landlord may ask you to prepay your rent in violation of your lease or rental agreement. Your landlord may also tell you that the foreclosure is a “mistake,” or say that the problem has been resolved. Do not get tricked into paying rent to the former owner after the property has already been sold to another party. To be sure, check with the office where deeds are recorded in the county where the property is located. You may also want to check court filings against your landlord.
- Call Legal Aid or consult with an attorney to find out what your options are, how long the foreclosure may take and how much time you have to move after a foreclosure or Sheriff sale.
- If your landlord is unable to pay the mortgage, the landlord may also not be paying the utilities, and your utility service may be shut-off. You should immediately contact the utility and the landlord if a shut-off notice is sent or if your utilities are shut off. You may be able to avoid the shut-off by contacting the utility and paying them directly, even if the utilities are in the landlord’s name. See Utility Shut-Offs
- Do not get scammed. If someone contacts you claiming to be the new property owner, ask to see documents that show ownership. Do this before paying rent, signing a new lease agreement, or allowing them to come inside the property. Scammers review publicly available foreclosure recordings and may contact tenants living in foreclosed properties to falsely demand rent.
- Negotiate a payment to move out. If the new owner wants you to move out, ask if they will give you some money to help pay moving expenses. This is sometimes referred to as a “cash for keys” agreement. Sometimes the bank or the new owner after a foreclosure sale is willing to do this if you agree to move out within a certain period of time.
- You should remove all of your belongings when you move out so the new property owner does not take or destroy them.
- If the landlord did not refund your security deposit or transfer it to the new owner after the foreclosure sale, you may need to take legal action to get back your deposit. See What to Do if Your Landlord Has Not Returned Your Security Deposit
Call Legal Aid or consult an attorney about your rights.