“I have a judgment from the small claims court. Now what?”
One call that we receive quite often follows a lay person’s successful prosecution of a case in small claims Court – formally called either the Magisterial District Justice Courts or the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The caller will have organized all of the documents and witnesses, and made a convincing case before the Judge, and gotten a judgment against another person or business. Contrary to popular beliefs and expectations, the defendant isn’t required to write a check on the spot to satisfy the judgment.
First, a small claims judgment itself doesn’t become executable until thirty (30) days after its entry. During this time, the defendant can either file a Petition to Open the judgment if it was entered by default, or appeal to the Court of Common Pleas de novo. A de novo appeal means that in essence, whatever happened at the small claims level will have no bearing on the case in the Court of Common Pleas. In other words, a plaintiff has to start all over from the beginning by filing a proper Complaint in the Court of Common Pleas within twenty (20) days of the appeal.
Assuming, however, that the judgment is entered and no appeal is taken within the thirty (30) day deadline, the plaintiff essentially has two options.
The first is to proceed with execution through the small claims court by the Constable. The Constable’s means and methods are limited, however, and largely confined to the jurisdictional area of the small claims Court itself.
The better practice is to transfer the judgment from the small claims court to the Court of Common Pleas. The advantage of this process is that when properly completed, you ensure that the judgment attaches as a lien against all real property owned by the defendant in the County. Without docketing in the Court of Common Pleas, a small claims judgment may not appear in a title search and therefore its effect can be thwarted. The other main advantage of docketing the judgment in the Court of Common Pleas is that execution can easily issue through the Sheriff’s Office, which has a much broader compliment of means to enforce a judgment. Additionally, if further legal relief is needed to enforce a judgment – for example, Court authorization for the Sheriff to break into the debtor’s premises to seize property – such relief can only be entertained in the Court of Common Pleas. However, certain Rules and formalities must be observed in transferring the judgment to the Court of Common Pleas, or a creditor risks the judgment being stricken from the dockets.