What Is a Small Claims Court in Alaska?
The small claims court in Alaska's Court System hears civil cases within a particular dollar limit. In Alaska, private citizens are the core litigants for these types of claims. As such, any person or business can bring a claim worth $10,000 or less in damages before the court to obtain a legal ruling.
The Alaska small claims court is a division of the district court, authorized by AS 22.15.040 to settle disputes using simplified court procedures. The court can hear most civil case types for $10,000 or less. Claims over $10,000 can be filed as well. However, the litigants must be willing to receive a money judgment not exceeding that amount - except for wage claims filed by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, for which the court can grant a monetary award of $20,000 or less.
The following cases are exempt from the court's jurisdiction:
- Real property title disagreements
- Actions to recover real property
- Actions against the United States government or the State of Alaska
- Cases filed to compel a person to do or not do something (injunctive relief)
- Foreclosure or enforcement of common law, statutory, or possessory liens
Alaska counties are grouped into 4 judicial districts. In each district, there is a small claims court.
How Does the Alaska Small Claims Court Work?
Court proceedings in the Alaska small claims court are less formal than in any other state court. The court also resolves cases more quickly as the legal procedures are not complex or too strict. Therefore, a plaintiff or defendant can file their case and present it before a district court judge or magistrate judge without requiring a lawyer. Parties to a small claims case are allowed to hire legal representation, but they are liable for the legal costs. The court can only reimburse a litigant who incurred attorney costs not exceeding $1,000. This is one way that the small claims court differs from the regular/formal civil court, where there is no maximum amount that can be repaid in attorney fees.
Furthermore, litigants do not have the right to a jury trial in the small claims court. Each trial is decided by a court judge, who makes a final ruling based on the facts and evidence presented to the court. Also, parties cannot request to replace ("pre-empt") an assigned judge with another in the small claims court. Nevertheless, small claims plaintiffs and defendants have the right of appeal. They can also ask the court to set aside a default judgment.
Anyone who wants to appeal a small claims court judgment due to a legal error or mistake must file a motion with the superior court. However, this does not involve a new trial, nor can the pleading party (appellant) present new evidence. Instead, the superior court will look at the original trial's tape recording, evidence, court file, and memoranda to find the error. The statutory limit for appealing any small claims final order is 30 days from the day the order was entered.
The District Court to Superior Court Appeals guide can help understand the appeal process of the small claims court, including the applicable filing fee, costs, and forms to prepare.
How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Alaska
In the Alaska small claims court, the party who starts the action is called the "plaintiff," whereas the party accused of causing the injury is the "defendant." However, before filing a claim, plaintiffs are encouraged to try settling out of court when possible. This prevents wasting time or money on a dispute that can be resolved by mediation, arbitration, or other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) means.
When out-of-court negotiations fail, anyone can file a small claims lawsuit in court, provided the amount in controversy is within the court's limit and the filing entity can provide sufficient evidence to win the case. The evidence can be in the form of testimonies, documents (receipts, warranties, etc.), and photographs. Also, plaintiffs should note that the court can issue a monetary judgment but cannot enforce it if the defendant refuses to pay unless the aggrieved party begins a new action called an "execution procedure." For more information on this court procedure, see the Collecting a Debt: Execution on a Judgment page or read the Execution Procedure: Judgment Creditor pamphlet.
Parties who are permitted to file a small claims case include:
- Individuals aged 18 years or older
- Minors below 18 years of age, through a parent or legal guardian
- Corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships, and unincorporated associations located in Alaska
A small claims suit can be filed in these places:
- The district court close to the defendant's residence or place of work
- The district court near where a personal injury or property damage occurred
- If suing a business, the district court where the business is located or does/solicits business
Once the appropriate court is discovered, the petitioner can visit that court to file specific forms and documents with the clerk of court. These forms can be obtained from the clerk or downloaded from the Alaska courts' website. The basic ones are as follows:
Instructions on filling these forms can be found in the Alaska Small Claims Handbook, section C. The filing fee for a claim of $2,500 or less is $50, whereas the fee for a claim above $2,500 is $100 (Administrative rule 9).
After filing the forms and paying the court fee, the clerk will assign a case number which the petitioner must write on the complaint, summons, and answer forms. The next step is to notify ("serve") the defendant and file proof of service with the clerk's office. Without this, the plaintiff's case cannot go forward. In fact, the court gives the plaintiff six months to serve the defendant by certified mail, restricted delivery, with return receipt requested or by process server. (See a list of approved process servers on the process servers page of the Alaska Courts' website or permits licensing page of the Alaska State Trooper site by clicking "civilian process server list").
Certified mail is more commonly used as it is the cheaper option. To serve a defendant by certified mail, the plaintiff can visit a local post office for instructions. It is important to keep the green card once received from the defendant, as this will serve as proof of service to the court. If the plaintiff fails to serve the defendant within the time given, the court will dismiss the case.
Every defendant in a small claims case must be served with the following documents:
- The summons form (Form SC-2)
- The answer form (Form SC-3). (The petitioner must fill the caption at the top of the form)
- A photocopy of the complaint
- One copy of any supporting document submitted in the lawsuit
Generally, defendants can be served in and out of Alaska if the presiding judge is a district court judge. However, if the case is heard by a magistrate judge, the plaintiff cannot serve an out-of-state defendant unless service is permitted by law. So far, there are only two instances of this:
- When the defendant is a landlord whose primary residence is not in Alaska (AS 34.03.340)
- When the defendant is an out-of-state motorist or vehicle owner whose vehicle is involved in a collision within the state (AS 09.05.020)
Full details on how to serve a defendant can be found in the How to Serve a Summons booklet. It is important to read this booklet, especially when serving the following parties:
- Deceased persons
- Incompetent persons
- People in jail
- Military persons
- Out-of-state defendants
- Businesses, associations, partnerships, or corporation
The booklet also talks about alternative service methods that a plaintiff may use when a defendant cannot be found or is hiding from/refusing service. One method is to post a legal notice on the Alaska Court System's website nonstop for four weeks by filing a Notice to Absent Defendant (Form CIV-101) with the court.
After the defendant has been served, the plaintiff must then file an Affidavit of Service (Form SC-4) and proof of service (certified mail receipts or documents obtained from the process server) with the clerk. It is possible to mention up to 3 defendants in the affidavit.
Once filing and service procedures have been completed, the plaintiff must wait 20 days (or 40 days if the defendant does not reside in the United States) for the defendant's answer. If the defendant fails to respond within this time, the plaintiff can file for a default judgment using Form SC-8 and mail it to the defendant by regular mail. The court will wait 7 days to pass a default judgment. Within this time, the defendant can still file an answer (Form SC-3) with the court. However, there are cases where the court may not enter this judgment. For example, if the defendant is mentally incompetent or an underage military person.
How Much Can You Sue For in Alaska Small Claims Court?
According to AS 22.15.040, the Alaska small claims court can only handle cases where the disputed amount does not exceed a specific dollar limit. When the case is between two or more private people or corporations, the limit is $10,000. However, entities with claims over $10,000 can still file in the small claims court but must agree to collect an award that is $10,000 or less.
The only exception to the maximum limit of the court is a wage claim from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Here, the limit is doubled to $20,000. That is, the plaintiff can receive an award of $20,000 or less for any wage-related injury brought before the court.
How to Defend Yourself in Alaska Small Claims Court
The "defendant" in any small claims case is the party liable for an injury, damage, or loss. The defendant can be any of the following entities:
- A person 18 years or older
- A minor
- A partnership, corporation, unincorporated association, or limited liability company operating in Alaska
- An out-of-state landlord
- An out-of-state motorist or vehicle owner involved in a collision in Alaska
As a defendant, the first thing to note is that there is no jail or prison sentence in a small claims lawsuit - it is not a criminal case. Rather, the defendant must pay any monetary award ordered by the court or return personal property if that is the case. The law mandates the plaintiff to serve a photocopy of the complaint, summons, and answer (Form SC-3) to the defendant. The defendant is expected to answer this service within 20 days (40 days if the individual lives outside the country) and pay the relevant answer fee by check payable to the "Clerk of Court." (Note that the case number must be written on the check as well) Failure to respond within this deadline can cause legal actions to be taken against such a person, like the seizure of property/money or having the court enter a default judgment against that person.
In answering the service, the defendant must decide if he or she wants to claim to be handled in the small claims court or moved to the district court for more formal procedures (more details on this are in paragraph 2, page 24 of the Small Claims Handbook). Defendants who choose the small claims route must fill and submit the answer form (Form SC-3) that was sent to them, regardless of if another defendant in the claim filed an answer.
The court recommends filling SC-3 form concisely and clearly after a few days when every emotional response has subsided. Defendants can:
- Consult a lawyer if they wish
- Try to settle with the plaintiff
- File a counterclaim by checking a box on the answer form, entering relevant details, and filling in the owed amount or property value, even if it is above $10,000.
- Request to change the trial venue, also by ticking a box on the SC-3 form
All in all, whatever action the defendant wants to take must be done within the court's deadline (20 days for persons living in the country or 40 days for persons residing outside the States).
After completing the answer form, the defendant should make 2 copies of the form and all attachments and serve the plaintiff with a copy of them; the other copy is for the defendant's records. The form and attachments could be served by email if the plaintiff opted for it.
If filing a request to change the venue of the trial, the plaintiff has 20 days to respond to or oppose the claim. For a counterclaim, the plaintiff also has the right to demand formal rules, i.e., for a case to be moved to the district court. The request will be in writing as there are no forms for it, and a copy of the written request should be sent to the defendant. There is a time limit for this: 13 days if the plaintiff received the counterclaim by mail or 10 days if it was hand-delivered, faxed, or emailed.
Note that if a request made by a plaintiff or defendant to move a case to the district court is approved, the civil case will become a new case, guided by different civil procedures. Interested parties can view the differences between the small claims and formal civil procedures, as well as the sequence of events in a small claims lawsuit, on Form SC-95: Small Claims Information Sheet.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Alaska?
The time a plaintiff has to take a defendant to the small claims court is peculiar to the type of case. Typically, this time starts counting once the injury or loss occurs. However, in some instances, the time may be paused. One example is when a minor sustains a personal injury - the time will not start until the child turns 18 years old. As such, it is important for one to do his/her research or, better yet, contact a lawyer to know these limits. In any case, it is best to begin a lawsuit immediately after an incident occurs, if settlement without the court's intervention cannot be achieved.
Generally, the statutory limit to file a civil lawsuit in the small claims court ranges from 2 to 10 years. For instance, personal injury is 2 years (AS 09.10.070), property damage is 2 years (AS 09.10.050), contract action is 3 years (AS 09.10.053), and so on.
What Happens if You Don't Show Up for Small Claims Court in Alaska?
Typically, a small claims trial is held after all filing, service, and answer procedures are completed. This hearing will take place 4 to 12 weeks after a defendant files an answer. The trial must be attended by the plaintiff, defendant, their attorneys (if any), and any witnesses. The judge will also be present. Failure to attend this hearing on the defendant's part can result in a default judgment and loss of the case. However, if the plaintiff does not show up for the small claims hearing, the court may issue a dismissal.
Nevertheless, parties who had a default judgment entered against them can ask the court to set aside the order using Form SC-24. This request must be filed no more than a year after the date of judgment. Anyone filing this motion must prove that they have evidence to win the case if a trial were scheduled and they had a good reason for not appearing in court or filing an answer.
However, note that filing Form SC-24 will not stop the winning party from collecting a monetary judgment. To prevent this from happening, the case party must file a request for a stay of execution and post a bond or make a cash deposit in the amount of the judgment, including interest. The clerk's office can be contacted for more details on this.
What are Small Claims Court Records in Alaska?
In the Alaska Court System, small claims court records are court documents containing information on small claims lawsuits filed in the district courts. These records are open to members of the public under the Alaska Public Records Act (As 40.25.110 et seq.) unless prohibited by law (see AS 40.25.120).
Where Can I Find Alaska Small Claims Court Records?
Anyone interested in obtaining Alaska court records can submit a written request to a court clerk's office or a court's records department. Note that the court to submit this request is the one where the case was filed. This request can be submitted in person, by mail, fax, or email to the court.
The Alaska Court System provides request forms on its website that requesters can use to obtain case files. Persons living in Anchorage, Saint Paul Island, and Sand Point can use the TF-311 ANCH form, persons in Fairbanks can use the TF-311 FBKS form, individuals in Palmer may use the TF-311 PA form, while all others can use TF-311. The applicable clerk's office or records department can be contacted for more details. Often, the requester will have to provide the following information:
- Their name, address, and contact details (phone number, fax, and email)
- A case number
- The case name
- Documents needed (the complaint, a motion, the judgment, etc.)
The requester must also pay a fee for this service. For plain copies, the first copy costs $5, and each additional copy costs $3. For certified copies, the first copy costs $10, and additional copies cost $3 each. Anyone requesting authenticated/exemplified copies must pay $15 for each document. If the requester requires the court staff to search for a record, the court charges $30 per hour. The court may also demand a deposit for some copy requests. It is possible to request audio recordings as well.
Moreover, a requester can use the courts' statewide database: CourtView, to search for small claims court records. Available information includes the case status, money collected and released in a small claims case, case parties' information, case disposition, documents filed in a case, and more. Interested persons can view the CourtView Online Information page to understand how to navigate the platform and what kind of case information is available to the public.