Where Philadelphia’s Small Claims Court Defendants Live

Data shows higher share of cases in certain areas, income bands, and racial groups

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Where Philadelphia’s Small Claims Court Defendants Live
Lexey Swall for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Approximately 91,000 cases are filed annually in Philadelphia Municipal Court’s Civil Division, predominantly small claims cases seeking under $12,000 (often less than $5,000), landlord-tenant disputes, and code enforcement violations issued by the city. But the caseload is not distributed evenly among neighborhoods, income bands, or racial and ethnic groups.

The Pew Charitable Trusts examined the court’s cases in a recent report, with an emphasis on small claims. Using court data, Pew mapped the home addresses of all people who were sued in small claims cases from 2013 to 2018. Many were debt collection cases for unpaid credit card and medical bills or auto loans, as well as monetary disputes between individuals or businesses.

The largest share of these defendants lived in Philadelphia’s middle-income and lower-middle-income neighborhoods, including North, Lower Northeast, and Southwest Philadelphia, as well as West Oak Lane. Fewer of them were in neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates or in higher-income areas, such as Center City, Manayunk, and Chestnut Hill. (See Figure 1.)

In addition to differing by census tract, the number of small claims cases on a per capita basis varied by race. In parts of the city with a high percentage of Black people, the rate of small claims cases brought against residents tended to be high. Conversely, in areas with a high percentage of non-Hispanic White people, the rate was lower. In areas with a larger share of Asian residents, case rates tracked similarly to areas with a high percentage of White residents. There was not a strong relationship between the neighborhoods where a large share of Hispanic Philadelphians live and the number of small claims cases. (See Table 1.)

Pew divided the city’s residential census tracts into four quartiles, based on the number of small claims defendants in each tract on a per capita basis.

Table 1

Census Tracts With the Highest and Lowest Per Capita Small Claims Cases in Municipal Court

By race/ethnicity

Case rate per 100,000 residents Median White percentage Median Black percentage Median Asian percentage Median Hispanic percentage
<52 68% 12% 7% 6%
52-64.99 43% 23% 7% 9%
65-77 23% 61% 3% 6%
>77 7% 85% 1% 3%

Sources: Philadelphia Municipal Court; U.S. Census Bureau

Looked at another way, residents of areas with annual median household incomes below $50,000 were the most likely to be defendants in small claims cases; they were sued at a rate of approximately 70 per 100,000 residents. And Philadelphians living in areas with higher median incomes were less likely to be defendants in these cases. (See Figure 2.) In 2018, the latest year for which court data was available, Philadelphia’s median household income was $46,116 citywide, ranging from $109,393 in Center City East (ZIP code 19106) to $19,130 in North Philadelphia-East (19133).

When the data is broken down by City Council district, the 9th Councilmanic District had the highest number of cases, at 12,842; this includes many of Philadelphia’s “middle neighborhoods” located across the top of the city, places with large numbers of middle-income households and relatively affordable homes. The 5th Councilmanic District—which includes some low-income sections of North Philadelphia and higher-income parts of Center City—had the fewest cases, at 8,663. (See Figure 3.) But it also had the highest median judgment amount, at $3,227.

The data suggests that Philadelphians are most likely to be sued in Municipal Court small claims cases if they are Black, have annual incomes of less than $50,000, and live in the middle-income neighborhoods across the northern half of the city. Residents who are least likely to be sued in small claims cases are White, have incomes of at least $100,000, and live in Center City or the Far Northeast.

Larry Eichel is a senior adviser and Katie Martin is a senior manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.

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