debtors an orderly procedure to defend against unjust claims. Debtors are entitled to rely on the clerks of court in the Prothonotary's office to review the complaints before entering judgment. The Prothonotary's practice to enter judgment for whatever creditors order in their Praecipes produces erroneous and arbitrary judgments for more than the complaints claim.
Due process requires that court clerks do not flatly refuse reasonable efforts to review complaints before entering judgment. Judgments must reflect "sums certain" or that "can be made certain by computation" from the complaints. Due process does not require perfection; however, the present system institutionalizes error. Error is inherent in a practice which denies the clerks' obligation to review complaints before entering judgment. The Prothonotary's practice is tantamount to letting creditors' lawyers enter judgments by their unreviewed Praecipes. Praecipes are not a substitute for complaints. Allowing judgments by praecipes after default is no more defensible than would be a system allowing judgments by praecipes in lieu of complaints. Complaints have a notice to plead; praecipes do not initiate an orderly procedure to respond.
What due process requires is a practicable system of internal procedures in the Prothonotary's office to make reasonable review of complaints before entering default judgments. Such procedures must recognize not only the rights of debtors, but the "probable value" of such procedures in preventing erroneous judgments and the "fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute requirement would entail." Ibid I have afforded the parties additional time to consider such procedures. At present, the procedure in place is to do nothing by way of reviewing the Complaints and to rely blindly on the creditors' praecipes. This policy of nonaction does not satisfy due process of law.
See Luskey v. Steffron, Inc., 461 Pa. 305, 309, 336 A.2d 298 (1975).
What due process mandates in the circumstances of this case is some reasonable safeguard by a neutral clerk's review against the mistaken taking of the debtors' property . The state of the law is: "We infer from the current crop of Supreme Court decisions that the prevailing rule of procedural due process is that official seizures can be constitutionally accomplished only with either 'notice and . . . opportunity for a hearing or other safeguard against mistaken taking.'" Jonnet v. Dollar Sav. Bank of City N.Y., 530 F.2d 1123, 1129 (3rd Cir. 1976).
The Prothonotary has a policy and practice to default in his obligation to exercise professional competence in checking that judgments do not exceed sums claimed in the complaints. The Prothonotary baldly contends that he has no duty to compute : "Were it otherwise, there would be no need to file an assessment, the Prothonotary would simply compute the amount from the Complaint." Pettit Memorandum at p. 16. This is an abdication of the Prothonotary's function to review the Praecipe so that judgment is entered for the sums "certain" or that "can be made certain by computation" from the complaint. Were it otherwise, creditors could enter judgments directly and there would be no need for a Prothonotary.
The problem is that the Prothonotary's mechanical application of the creditors' praecipes deprives debtors of meaningful consideration by a neutral court clerk that the judgment meets the minimal requirement of not exceeding what the Complaint claims. As the Court held in an analogous context:
"There are no provisions for the exercise of judgment by an official of professional competence to ascertain whether conditions for attachment have been met or whether a valid claim has been pleaded. The affidavit requirement has little utility if it is not given meaningful consideration. Due process requires at a minimum that the sworn statement be presented to an official with sufficient legal competence to make those determinations; the issuance of the writ should be conditional on approval by such official."