This post is part of our ongoing series translating the lawyer-gibberish of Pennsylvania lawsuits into something understandable. For the definitions of the terms in bold check out the post that launched this series. A list of all the posts in the series is at the tail end of this article.

The litigation process often begins before actual litigation.

Wait, what?

I mean that disputes often involve exchanges before we get in front of the court system you see on TV, i.e. the Court of Common Pleas here in Pennsylvania. Today let’s look at the common things that can happen before we get to the courthouse.

The Demand Letter – Kicking it Off

Many lawsuits start with a lawyer demanding action in a letter. Commonly known as a demand letter, this document is often a final effort by a Plaintiff to resolve a dispute out of court. While this letter doesn’t start a court case, it may indicate that the Plaintiff is serious and is ready to sue. Or maybe the Plaintiff is only willing to pay for a letter, not to actually take you to court.

How can you tell? Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all answer to this question. It depends on what’s at stake, how strong the legal claims are, and the personality of those involved. Sometimes a dispute can be settled at this stage if both parties want to avoid taking the matter before a court, or it may be necessary to proceed to the next step of litigation.  So when you receive a demand letter, it may be time to talk with your own lawyer to plan a strategy (even if that strategy is to wait and see what happens).

Litigation Holds – Keeping Anything and Everything

When you know that a lawsuit is coming, both the Plaintiff and the Defendant must keep information related to the dispute. When you receive a demand letter, start preserving information related to the dispute. Some demand letters even explicitly include language reminding the other side of its duty to preserve evidence.

So what does it mean to preserve evidence? Most people are not fraudsters who would react to a lawsuit by shredding documents (unlike certain Enron folks…). But many businesses and individuals have routine procedures to throw out older documents they do not need anymore. When a litigation hold takes effect, you need to notify everyone involved not to allow those routine procedures that could destroy evidence to continue.

Litigation holds are particularly important in the digital era because computers routinely have automatic deletion procedures. For example, email servers and smartphones may automatically delete older messages to make room for new incoming ones. But if those older messages related to the dispute and you did not protect them, you’re going to be in trouble.

Magisterial District Courts

So the Defendant has ignored your demand letter. And this is an issue worth fighting about. So where do you start your lawsuit? You could go directly to the Court of Common Pleas, but cases worth less than $12,000 can be started at the MDJ level. In Pennsylvania, elected Magisterial District Judges (MDJ) preside over local district courts. These MDJ courts are Pennsylvania’s “small claims” court. MDJs also handle landlord-tenant disputes.

The standard MDJ process goes like this:

  1. The Filing – The Plaintiff files its Complaint. This is a one-page form setting out the names of those involved and a short paragraph explaining the claim.
  2. The Mailing – The Complaint is sent to the Defendant by mail by the MDJ.
  3. Deadline to Raise a Defense – A date is scheduled for the dispute. Commonly called the “default date,” this is not a date when an actual hearing will take place. Instead, the Defendant or its attorney must notify the MDJ by this date that the Defendant wants to fight the claim. If the Defendant does not, then the MDJ will enter a Default Judgment for the Plaintiff.
  4. The Hearing – If the Defendant tells the MDJ it will fight, a new date is scheduled for the actual Hearing. At the Hearing both sides can tell their story, present other witnesses, and show the MDJ pictures and documents.
  5. The Judgment – Within 5 days, the MDJ will enter a judgment. This may award the Plaintiff what it wanted, some of what it wanted, or nothing at all.
  6. The Appeal – Either side may appeal the MDJ’s decision within 20 days. If anyone does, then the process starts over before the Court of Common Pleas. This appeal is de novo, meaning that the MDJ’s decision is set aside and the Court of Common Pleas will treat it as a dispute that has never been ruled on.

So wait. If either side can appeal and render the MDJs decision meaningless, why bother?

There are two big reasons you might try an MDJ proceeding first.

  • SpeedMDJ proceedings are much, much faster. An MDJ proceeding usually takes 2-3 months. A Court of Common Pleas case might take 2-3 years.
  • Cost – Given the time and limited scope, MDJ proceedings are also much more cost-effective. Many people represent themselves before the MDJ to further cut down on the cost. For a relatively small dollar amount dispute, the MDJ proceedings provide an opportunity to get a neutral third-parties ruling on a dispute. After all, an MDJ is a judge. So this can be an effective way to resolve small claims.

Are these pre-Court of Common Pleas methods right for you? I recommend you speak with a  litigation attorney up-front to develop your strategy. Even if you represent yourself in an MDJ proceeding, we can save you money eventually by making sure you are on the right track.

Check out the rest of our series “Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language”:

  • Key Terms – the definitions you need to know
  • Let’s Get It Started – before we get to court
  • Pleading (Not the 5th) – the basics of stating the claims
  • Who’s On First? –collecting evidence
  • It’s Your Turn to Talk – what you need to know about depositions
  • As a Matter of Law… – motions that could end your case before trial
  • The Final Countdown – trial and post-trial procedures
Brandon Harter is litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School and advises clients on issues of  Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and chairs the firm’s Tech Law Group.