Magisterial District Courts are Pennsylvania’s version of “small-claims” court for Civil and Landlord Tenant cases. They are designed to give individuals the opportunity to litigate their cases in front of a judge in a quick and accessible manner, and are more accessible for lay-people than the higher courts. Because of this, many residential landlords, especially those who own multiple rental properties, feel that they can represent themselves in Landlord and Tenant/Eviction proceedings in District Court. While for some very straight-forward cases this is fine, Landlords should be fully aware of the potential dangers of self-representation in District Court. At Latoison Law, we often have landlords contact us to represent them after they have made critical mistakes trying to represent themselves at eviction proceedings in District Court. Here, we will explain some of the pitfalls even legally savvy landlords encounter when they represent themselves.
From our experience, many judges tend to show a bias toward tenants. This could be because tenants will often arrive in court with a litany of excuses for why they are behind on rent payments – e.g. health and family problems, job losses, etc. These excuses are usually legally irrelevant, but they can be effective in eliciting sympathy from the judge. Other times, judges will assume that all landlords are “slum lords,” or the true facts of the case will get lost in accusations by the tenant that the landlords has failed to keep up with repairs or has made verbal promises which override the lease terms. The attorneys at Latoison Law can effectively object to irrelevant testimony and focus the judge’s attention on the key issues.
Another matter which can complicate the hearing for self-represented landlords is the distinction between a judgment of possession and what is often referred to as a “pay-to-stay” judgment. Many landlords go to court hoping to regain possession of the rental property as soon as possible for various reasons, and while there is often an argument to be made that a landlord is entitled to absolute possession of the property, judges often prefer to grant a “pay-to-stay” judgment to landlords when a tenant is behind on rent. This means that if the tenant can pay the outstanding rent, as established by the judge, before the final step in the eviction process, the tenant cannot legally be evicted. These types of rulings can put a landlord in a position where the cycle of filing for eviction and going to court just to collect rent repeats itself over and over without any improvement in the situation. In a case like this, the attorneys at Latoison Law would work to effectively persuade a judge to grant absolute possession, so that the landlord can gain possession and then begin renting to a more conscientious tenant.
Finally, it is very important for a landlord seeking possession to ensure that all of the proper procedures are followed in the District Court because of the tenant’s absolute right to appeal. The appeal process is one of the most frustrating aspects of Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Law for landlords, because when a tenants who loses in the District Court appeals the case to the Court of Common Pleas, eviction is put on hold until the outcome of the appeal hearing, which is generally scheduled for about 12 months later. As long as the tenant pays his or her “monthly rent” into the court’s escrow account throughout the appeal process, he or she can continue living in the rental property for months and months without making a single payment to the landlord.
The District Court hearing will affect the tenant’s ability to appeal because the amount of monthly rent that the appealing tenant must pay into the court’s escrow during the appeal is determined by the District Court judge. We have seen many cases where, unbeknownst to a self-represented landlord, something went wrong in District Court and the monthly rent amount was not properly established by the judge. This causes significant headache for the landlord and delays an already slow process. While the attorneys at Latoison Law have been able to correct these problems, they could have been avoided altogether if a knowledgeable attorney had been in District Court with the landlord.
While some landlords are able handle the District Court eviction process, landlords should be aware that there are risks to self-representation. By hiring an experienced law firm like Latoison Law, landlords can sit back and relax, knowing that everything is taken care of for them and that the eviction process will proceed smoothly and efficiently.