A guide for PA DIY investigations

Before filing a lawsuit, I do an investigation of the potential defendant. I want to know as much information as possible regarding if the potential defendant has been sued before, has any outstanding judgments, has any criminal history, and has assets to satisfy any judgment. I often find myself telling clients, after a dispute has arisen, that this should be done before entering into an any agreement with another party.

Most people do not know the extent to which an investigation of another person or entity can be done online for free. Below are links that I use when investigating individuals and business entities. This information is current as of August 15, 2017, but will probably become outdated quickly. Any search should be done using individual names along with business entity names.

PENNSYLVANIA SMALL CLAIMS COURT CIVIL DOCKETS

Civil claims under $12,000 can be filed in common pleas court or small claims court. The small claims courts are called Magisterial District Courts in the counties outside of Philadelphia and Municipal Court in Philadelphia. Often suits against contractors or contractual disputes among individuals are brought in small claims court. A search of small claims court dockets will tell you the number of times a person or entity has sued or been sued in small claims court, the outcomes of the cases, and the parties involved. Magisterial District Court dockets can be searched here. Philadelphia Municipal Court civil dockets can be searched here.

PENNSYLVANIA CRIMINAL DOCKETS

The Magisterial District Courts have jurisdiction over minor criminal matters and initial jurisdiction over all criminal matters. A docket search for criminal matters can be done here, by searching for “Criminal” under the type of docket. If the matter has moved to common pleas court, you can search for it here. If the criminal matter is in Philadelphia Municipal Court, you can search for the docket here.

Searching these dockets will let you know the charges an individual has faced and the outcome of the case.

PENNSYLVANIA COMMON PLEAS CIVIL DOCKETS

Common pleas civil dockets will tell you if a person or corporation has ever sued or been sued in common pleas court. You can also get information about judgments against people or corporations. Each county handles common pleas court docket accessibility differently. Often, you can search online by name and obtain copies of any pleadings. Some counties (like Chester) require registration before you can search the dockets. Below are the links to publicly accessible Philadelphia area county dockets.

If you are entering a business transaction with another person or entity, it is a good idea to look for judgments against them and to download any complaints filed to get an idea of past allegations against them.

REAL PROPERTY RECORDS

Each county handles property records differently. These are useful for finding ownership information of real property, which can let you know if assets are available to satisfy a judgment. The Philadelphia website is especially useful, as it has sale information, tax information, and permit/licensing information. It is therefore helpful to tenants who want to know if their landlord is operating properly. Below are the links to publicly accessible Philadelphia area property records:

BUSINESS ENTITY AND UCC-1 SEARCH

The Pennsylvania Department of State allows users to search for Pennsylvania business entities here. This tool can be used to look up the proper business name, address, owners, fictitious names, and status of operation.

You can search for UCC-1 financing statements filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State here. This allows the user to search by debtor name to check if any creditors have an interest in the debtor’s personal property.

PENNSYLVANIA LICENSE SEARCHES

When working with a person or facility that requires a state license, it is a good idea to perform a license search. The Pennsylvania Department of State license verification page is here. This page allows you to make sure that a license is active and there is no disciplinary history.

When hiring someone to work on your home, it is important to know the basics of Pennsylvania’s Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (“HICPA”). The HICPA requires home improvement contractors to register with the state. It regulates the content of home improvement contracts and the activities of home improvement contractors. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s page on the HICPA is here. To verify the registration of a home improvement contractor, search here.

PENNSYLVANIA ATTORNEY SEARCH

License information on Pennsylvania attorneys, including any disciplinary action, can be found here.

FEDERAL COURT SEARCHES (CIVIL, BANKRUPTCY, CRIMINAL)

Federal court dockets can be viewed on PACER, but an account is required. RECAP provides some free access.

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