Alaska Small Claims Courts
In Alaska, the District Court Civil Division processes small claims cases. A small claim in Alaska is a matter that does not exceed $10,000.00. This requirement is mandated by Alaska Statute Sec. 22.15.040.
The Alaska court system created the Alaska Small Claims Handbook, a guide to the small claims process. The Alaska court system website provides forms for filing and responding to small claims cases. The website also provides information about court locations.
You can find additional information about small claims cases at the following links:
- Alaska Courts Directory from the Alaska Court System: This directory includes contact information for all district and small claims courts.
- District Court Civil Rules: Includes procedures for small claims under District Court Civ. Rules 8 - 22.
This article provides a brief overview of Alaska's small claims procedure.
Who Can File a Small Claims Case?
Anyone over 18 years old can file a small claims case in Alaska. Anyone under 18 years old may file a small claims case with the assistance of a parent or guardian. Businesses may also file a small claims case.
Plaintiffs may file a small claims case in Alaska against any of the following:
- Anyone over the age of 18
- The parent or guardian of a person who is younger than 18 years of age
- Unincorporated associations
- Limited liability companies (LLC)
- Corporations doing business in Alaska
Typically, a plaintiff cannot file a small claims case against someone outside of Alaska. Instead, the plaintiff can sue said person or business in a superior court. A district court judge will hear a lawsuit against someone outside of Alaska.
Certain disputes, such as evictions and claims against the government, cannot be heard in Alaska's small claims courts.
What Are the Differences Between a Civil Case and a Small Claims Case?
Small claims cases in Alaska are different than civil cases.
People can use small claims cases to recover money or personal property worth $10,000.00 or less. If the amount in dispute is over $10,000.00, the lawsuit is typically filed in a superior court.
Small claims cases follow simplified rules of civil procedure. These cases and resulting trials are more informal than a civil case filed in a superior court. Parties in a small claims case do not need to follow all the formal rules required when filing a civil suit in a superior court.
For example, in small claims cases, the Alaska Rules of Evidence may not bar evidence that the court would bar in a superior court case. Moreover, a judge may take a more active role than in a civil court case. A judge decides the outcome in a small claims case rather than the jury in a jury trial.
In small claims cases, approximately 15 to 20 court rules apply. In formal civil cases, there are over 80 court rules.
Once a plaintiff files a small claims case, the court will schedule a trial within 4 to 12 weeks of the filing date. In a formal civil case, the court will typically file a trial at least six months after the defendant answers the complaint.
Are Attorneys Necessary to File a Small Claims Case?
Parties do not typically need to hire an attorney to file a small claims case in the state of Alaska. However, if the plaintiff assigns their claim to another party, the assignee must hire an attorney. In these cases, the defendant does not need to hire an attorney.
If a party chooses to hire an attorney, the attorney will likely be entitled to attorney's fees.
Small claims cases can involve complex legal rules. Consider speaking to a civil litigation attorney in Alaska if you are involved in a small claims case.
How to File a Small Claims Case
To file a small claims case, the plaintiff must acquire the following three court forms from the local court clerk or online:
- Complaint (form SC-1)
- Summons (form SC-2)
- Answer (form SC-3)
The complaint is the plaintiff's formal complaint against the defendant. The plaintiff must identify who they are suing and how much money the defendant owes them. The complaint is the document that initiates the lawsuit.
The summons is a notice to the defendant that the plaintiff is suing them.
The answer is a document that accompanies the summons and complaint. The plaintiff only needs to fill out the caption of the answer.
Along with these documents, the plaintiff may attach supporting documentation. For example, if the plaintiff alleges the defendant breached a contract, the plaintiff may attach a copy of the contract.
Once the plaintiff has completed these forms, they can file them with the court. The court clerk will assign a case number once the plaintiff files these documents.
The court in which the plaintiff files the case matters. The plaintiff must file the lawsuit at a place which will not cause unnecessary expense or inconvenience to the defendant. Typically, this means the plaintiff must file in the court closest to where the defendant lives or works. The plaintiff can also file the case in the court nearest to where the injury or property damage occurred.
The court will charge a $50.00 filing fee for disputes of $2,500.00 or less. For disputes over $2,500.00, the court will charge a $100.00 filing fee. Contact your local court clerk for further assistance if you cannot afford these court costs.
What Happens After a Plaintiff Files a Small Claims Case?
The plaintiff must serve the defendant with the summons and complaint within 120 days of filing their small claims case. The two most common service methods in Alaska are certified mail and process servers. The plaintiff must show proof of service to the court.
The court may provide alternate service methods if the plaintiff cannot serve the defendant. Contact your local court if you cannot serve the defendant with certified mail or process servers. Certified mail should include a return receipt and specify restricted delivery.
The Alaska Small Claims Handbook provides information about each of these methods. Additionally, your local clerk of court may have self-help resources for your small claims case.
How to Respond to a Summons and Complaint
A defendant served with a summons and complaint must generally respond within 20 days after the service date. To respond to the lawsuit, the defendant will typically complete the answer that accompanied the summons and complaint.
If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, the defendant can file a counterclaim. If the counterclaim is over $10,000.00, the defendant can make a written request for a civil case under formal rules rather than responding to the small claims case. If the defendant chooses to pursue a formal civil case, they must complete a different form.
What if the Defendant Does Not Answer the Complaint: Default Judgment
The plaintiff may ask the court to enter a default judgment if the defendant does not respond to the complaint within 20 days. To request a default judgment, the plaintiff must file a Default Affidavit and Request for Judgment Form (Form SC-8).
If the court grants a default judgment, the plaintiff prevails. The plaintiff will typically receive the amount of money listed on their complaint. If the defendant does not pay the default judgment, the plaintiff may request other court orders to seize the defendant's money or personal property to satisfy the judgment.
What Happens at a Small Claims Trial?
The court will send parties a Notice of Trial once the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's answer are filed. The Notice will indicate when and where the small claims trial will occur.
Before the trial, the parties may gather evidence to support their cases. Evidence may include documents, photographs, medical records, or other things, depending on your case.
Additionally, parties may call witnesses to testify at the trial. For example, suppose the plaintiff alleges the defendant's actions caused a personal injury to the plaintiff. The parties may call eyewitnesses to the incident to offer their perspectives on the incident. Witnesses typically appear in person. They can appear remotely in certain circumstances.
If a party desires to call a witness, but the witness refuses to appear at the trial, the party can subpoena the witness. A subpoena is a court order requiring the witness to appear at the trial.
During the trial, the plaintiff will present their case first. This may include presenting evidence and asking a witness questions. The defendant will then present their case. If a party calls a witness, the non-calling party can cross-examine the witness.
What Happens After the Small Claims Trial?
The judge will determine the outcome because no jury is present in a small claims case. The judge may decide the matter immediately, or they may take time after the case to prepare a written judgment.
If the judge enters a money judgment in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant has to pay the plaintiff according to the judgment. In such a situation, the plaintiff is the creditor, and the defendant is the debtor. The debtor must pay the creditor directly.
If a debtor cannot pay the creditor, they may file a form to pay the judgment in installments (Form SC-18). If the debtor fails to pay the judgment entirely, the court may order that the debtor's property be seized to pay the judgment.
If a party disagrees with the judgment, they may appeal the judgment. As noted in the Alaska Small Claims Handbook, an appeal does not automatically give the party a new trial. Instead, the superior court hearing the appeal will only consider the information presented at the original trial.
Hire an Attorney for Your Small Claims Case
Parties to a small claims case do not need to hire a lawyer. However, an attorney can provide important legal advice to parties to a small claims case. For example, an attorney can provide you with more information regarding the following:
- Filling out small claims forms and pleadings
- Whether your case is the kind of case to file in small claims court or a superior court
- What to do if a collection agency has contacted you regarding payments allegedly owed
- The legitimacy of a plaintiff's claim or a defendant's counterclaims
Small claims cases can be quite complex. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.
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