Wood Smoke and Court Complaints


Assuming a complainant goes directly to court to seek relief on wood smoke air pollution issues, or the other party has not responded to a Demand Letter or has not complied to or has appealed County or Municipal notice(s), the litigation process in Magisterial District Court or Common Pleas Court can begin. The court processes in Magisterial District Court and Common Pleas Court differ considerably. The following is an informational overview of the respective processes as well as a universal or nonspecific perspective of the court process.

Magisterial District Court – this court process generally comprises:

  • The Complaint
  • The Hearing
  • The Judgement
  • The Appeal (where applicable)

The Complaint

The person or government entity filing the complaint and bringing the lawsuit (plaintiff) files the complaint on a form available at the Magisterial District Judge’s office.

The Magisterial District Court personnel check the filed form and collect filing and delivery (for delivery to Defendant – person against whom the suit is brought) fees. Note that there are arrangements for waiving fees in hardship cases.

The Magisterial District Judge’s (MDJ’s) office will indicate a “default date” or Deadline to Raise a Defense (for notification to the MDJ as to Defendant ‘s intent to contest claim) on the complaint form. The office mails or delivers (by a sheriff or constable) a copy of the complaint to the Defendant. If the Defendant does not respond, the MDJ will enter a Default Judgement for the Plaintiff.

The Hearing

Assuming the Defendant will contest the claim, the MDJ will set a date for a Hearing. During the hearing, the parties each present their respective cases, including through both questioning of witnesses and presentation of documents. The use of lawyers is optional.

The Judgement

After the parties have concluded presentation of the evidence, the Magisterial District Judge ends the hearing. It then issues a judgment, immediately or within 5 days.

The Appeal

Either party may appeal to the Court of Common Pleas by filing the appeal in the Prothonotary’s Office or the Department of Court Records in the County Court House within 20/30 days of the District court judgment. Given an appeal the case begins anew in Common Pleas Court.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas – one’s “day in court” in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas may progress as follows:

  • Appeal of MDJ’s Decision
  • Complaint on Appeal of MDJ’s Decision or Complaint to Initiate Litigation
  • Preliminary Objections
  • Answer New Matter and Counterclaim
  • Reply to New Matter
  • Arbitration Hearing
  • Notice of Arbitration Appeal
  • Pre-trial Conference
  • Trial Brief and Pretrial Statement
  • Trial
  • Post-Trial

Appeal of MDJ’s Decision

This assumes that the litigation emanates from an appeal of the MJD’s decision – otherwise the process in the Court of Common Pleas begins with the initiation of litigation in court as per below. Either party may appeal the Magisterial District Judge’s decision to the Court of Common Pleas by filing an appeal in the Prothonotary’s Office or the Department of Court Records in the County Court House within 20/30 days of the District court judgment. Given this appeal the case begins anew in Common Pleas Court.

Complaint on Appeal of MDJ’s Decision or Complaint to Initiate Litigation

Weather as a result of an Appeal of an MDJ’s decision or as the initiation of litigation the Plaintiff will/can file a Complaint to the Court of Common Pleas to outline the facts of its case and what it wants the Court to order and/or award in its final judgment. The Plaintiff then serves the Complaint on the Defendant by hand delivery from the Sheriff’s Office. In the Complaint the Notice to Defend clause indicates that the Defendant must respond to the Complaint within 20 days by filing an Affidavit of Defense to the claims. If it doesn’t, the Plaintiff can send a warning called a “Notice of Default.” If the Defendant still does not respond, the Plaintiff can request a Default Judgment or “Motion for Default” 10 days after sending the Notice of Default. The Complaint will also indicate the date for an Arbitration Hearing if this is an appeal from the MDJ or a case where damages amount to $25,000 or less.

Preliminary Objections

Should there be problems with the Complaint, the Defendant may file Preliminary Objections to the Complaint. Preliminary Objections are the in essence a “Motion to Dismiss” whereby the Defendant asks the court to look at procedural or legal defects in the Complaint. After both parties have filed Briefs to argue the Preliminary Objections, the court will make a decision. Unless the Court throws out the Complaint, one may anticipate resuming the procedure as below after the court rules.

Answer New Matter and Counterclaim

The Defendant responds to each numbered paragraph in the Complaint in a document called an Answer. The Answer may also contain information in addition to the responses to the Complaint. This may include “New Matter” i.e., new facts that the Defendant sees as pertinent but the Plaintiff has omitted. New Matter can also cite certain legal defenses. It may also include “Counterclaims,” to the Plaintiff’s Complaint. Counterclaims are claims that the Defendant could have raised in a separate Complaint.

Reply to New Matter

When the Defendant’s Answer does include New Matter or Counterclaims, the Plaintiff files its response to those new statements. We label this responsive document as the Reply to New Matter.

Arbitration Hearing

An Arbitration Hearing in the Court of Common Pleas is an alternative to the trial process in the Court of Common Pleas designed to affect a more expedient resolution of a case. As noted above, an appellant must file an Appeal from the local Magisterial District Judge decision (civil case) with the Arbitration Division (within the Civil Division); and a claimant (Plaintiff) in a civil suit where it seeks damages of not more than $25,000.00, must also file with the Arbitration Division. Otherwise. the suit goes on the General Docket in the Court of Common Pleas for trial.

The Arbitration Board comprising three attorneys conducts the hearing, takes testimony and evidence, acts as the fact-finder, and issues a decision.

If one party to a suite is absent from the hearing, then the other side wins by default. At arbitration hearings, civil rules of evidence and procedure and special Arbitration rules will apply. Representation by an attorney is advisable at an arbitration hearing.

At the hearing, the Plaintiff presents its case, including documentary evidence and witnesses’ testimony. The Defendant can cross-examine those witnesses, then present its own case. The Arbitration Board may render a decision the same day, and mail the decision to the parties.

Notice of Arbitration Appeal

The Arbitrators’ decision is not final or binding; one may file an appeal or Notice of Arbitration Appeal within 30-days to the Civil Division. The appellant may request a jury or non-jury trial, but the other party can still demand a jury trial. In terms of achieving a resolution to a case, it may take an additional six months to one year to get a non-jury trial, and it may take two or more years to get on the jury trial list.

Pre-Trial Conference

The Court will schedule a Pre-Trial Conference between judge and attorneys for both sides to discuss matters relating to the trial of the case including possible settlement, i.e., settlement negotiations. If there is no settlement, a trial will ensue.

Trial Brief and Pretrial Statement

In accordance with court rules, the attorneys for both sides submit a Trial Brief and Pretrial Statement to set forth the facts, a summary of the evidence and intended witnesses, writings, statistics, or other sources and legal arguments that they intend to present at trial.


Contrary to popular belief, the court process may end without a trial. So-called dispositive motions such as Motion for Default, Preliminary Objections, or Motion for Summary Judgement (as above) may resolve the case in favor of one of the parties without a trial.

However, if there is no settlement and if the case is not resolved by a dispositive motion or motions, a trial takes place and a verdict is rendered. For a jury trial, the jury selection process entails questioning perspective jurors at random to confirm their qualifications. After the jurors have been sworn in, the opposing attorneys present their opening statements to the jury as to what they believe the evidence will show.

Each side presents its evidence using documentary evidence and testimony. After that, the attorneys present closing arguments. In a jury trial, the judge instructs the jury as to application of the law in that case. 

Jurors deliberate in private to determine a verdict. The jury determines whether or not the plaintiff has proven its case and what, if any, damages are appropriate. The judge if/as warranted may overrule the jury’s determination or damage award. 

In a non-jury trial, the judge hears testimony of the witnesses and each attorney’s arguments, and then renders a decision.


Either party can appeal the decision to an appellate court under the rules of that court.

Note: The above cursory summarization touches on key steps you may expect as a claim proceeds in court. During this process, other legal proceedings such as “discovery” and “motions” will play an important role.

After a party has filed a lawsuit and before a scheduled completion date, both parties may pursue discovery to confirm facts pertinent to the claims and defenses in question. Discovery may entail both written discovery and oral discovery:

  • Interrogatories i.e., written questions that the other side under oath must answer in writing, sent from one party to another
  • Requests for Production i.e. the parties’ requests for and exchange of documents that are relevant to the case
  • Requests for Admissions i.e., one party’s request that another party admit or deny the truth of a statement under oath. If admitted, the statement is assumed to be true for purposes of the trial.
  • Depositions i.e., out-of-court sessions where a party or a witness answers questions under oath while a court recorder records proceeding in a transcript (usually following Interrogatories and Requests for Production of Documents).

During and after discovery, the parties may pursue “motions” before the judge to ask for the court’s help (e.g., to order production of evidence, or the subpoena of a witness) and relief (e.g., Motion to Dismiss or Motions for Summary Judgment to decide case on the merits prior to trial).

Court Process – A Universal View

In a broad perspective Court process or trial process in a higher court may comprise several formal stages or certain aspects thereof such as the following.

  • Pleading Stage
  • Pretrial Stage
  • Trial Stage.
  • Post-Trial Stage

Pleading Stage

Activities common to this stage include Filing a Complaint to the court; the Summons or Notification by the court to the defense, Motions to Dismiss by defense, and the Motion for Judgment as to a settlement or a judgment based on the evidence, or given no judgement, a resolution to proceed to trial.

Pretrial Stage

Activities common to this stage include Discovery or Finding of Facts, which may include interrogatories, requests for production, requests for admission, requests for inspection, and/or depositions, i.e. recordation of a witnesses sworn testimony; one or more Motions for Summary Judgment asking the Court for pretrial judgments on one or more claims; and finally, the Pretrial Order – the court will set forth the date(s) for trial, the issues to be decided, the anticipated witnesses who will testify, and any other special orders applicable to the trial.

The Trial Stage

Trials encompass a host of activities: Jury Selection (if any) from a pool of potential jurors; Opening Statements by the attorneys, testimony by witnesses and experts offered by Plaintiff in support of his/her/its claims and cross examination by the defense; testimony by witnesses and experts offered by the defense and cross examination by the plaintiffs’ counsel; Redirection and Recall -as allowable, redirection and recall of witnesses by counsel; Closing Arguments by Counsel for the plaintiffs and defense; Charge to the Jury by the judge as to instructions on evaluation of the case; the Verdict from the jury; Judgment by the court as to concurrence, or determination for a new trial, or dismissal.

Post-Trial Stage

This stage addresses Appeals – The losing party may file an appeal for a hearing in a court at a higher venue.

NOTE: Many thanks to The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, Lancaster Law, the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania, SERC Carleton, Lawyers.com and the US Department of Justice (see site list below) for their useful and understandable material from which we prepared these summaries.