Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe your former landlord won't refund all of your security deposit or is holding some of your personal belongings that you left behind when you moved? These are the kinds of cases or disputes that are resolved by the Alaska small claims courts.
And, now that you've come to the realization that a lawsuit is the only way you're going to get your money or property, you need to know the mechanics of what to do and how to do it. In general, you have to have to know exactly who you're suing, have the right paperwork, and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. In Alaska, each county has a district court. Generally, you need to file your small claims case in the district court for the county where the:
- Defendant lives or works
- Injury or property damage happened. For example, if you're suing because you were injured in a car accident, you may file where in the county where the accident happened
- Business or company that you're suing has a store or an office
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper district or even ask that the case be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court. This can slow things down for you. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk's office for your area for some help.
Complaint and Summons
In Alaska, you start a small claims case by filing a Complaint. When filling out the form, you need to give information about case in a clear and simple may. Print neatly and just give the facts about your claim. Specifically, you'll need to give:
- Your name, address and a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day
- The defendant's name and address
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay, or a description of the personal property that you want the defendant to turn over to you
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money, or why the property rightfully belongs to you
It's very important that you have the proper name and address of the party you're suing. If you're suing:
- A business that's not a corporation, like a sole proprietorship or a "dba" (meaning, "doing business as"), you should contact the Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community & Economic Development (DOC)to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from DOC's corporations database. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent," the person who accepts important documents for the corporation
- A partnership, you should list the name of the partnership as well as the individual partners. Again the DOC may help you find this information for some partnerships, or you may want to contact your local Better Business Bureau (BBB)
Also, if at the time you file the lawsuit, you decide to file documents or papers to support your claim (like bills, receipts, a lease, etc.), you need to include a copy of each for the defendant.
At the time you file these forms, you will need to pay filing fees. In Alaska, the fee is $40 if your claim is $2,500 or less, and $75 for claims over $2,500. These fees can change at any time, so be sure to ask the district court clerk about the current fee.
Service of Process
"Service of process" is when one party gives the other party notice that he's being sued. Generally, this is done by making sure that the defendant gets a copy of Complaint and the Summons. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Claim, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, you can pay the clerk to have the papers mailed to the defendant by certified mail, or you can pay for a state trooper, other peace officer or a process server to serve them. The court clerk can tell about the fees.
Make sure you have the right name and address! If the defendant isn't served properly your case can't go forward, and it may be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court, and you'll then have to start all over again. If you're suing a corporation, you need to serve its "registered agent." She's the person named by the corporation who's responsible for accepting important documents and papers on behalf of or for the corporation. If you're suing a sole proprietorship, you need to serve the business's owner or its registered agent, if it has one. If you're suing a partnership, you need to serve its general or managing partner.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree with your claim and either pay you or return your property. If you agree to a settlement, you need to contact the court immediately and have your case dismissed. You may also ask that the court enter an agreed judgment or "consent judgment" that can be enforced later by the court if the defendant doesn't live up to the agreement
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant explains to the court in writing why you shouldn't win the case. He must file an Answer within 20 days after he receives your Complaint and Summons. After the 20 days passes, you and the defendant will be notified by mail about the date, time, and place of trial
- Default. If the defendant doesn't file an answer or show up for trial, he "defaults," and you automatically win, so long as he was properly served with the Complaint and Summons and you can show the magistrate that your claim against defendant was valid. You need to file paperwork for a default judgment
- Request a Change of Place of Trial, that is, ask that the case be moved to another court
- Request that the formal Rules of Civil Procedure be applied to the case. Basically, this means that the case will be taken out of the small claims court and placed in the regular district court, where it will be a much more complicated trial. If the defendant does this, you should contact your attorney
- Counterclaim, or file a claim that you owe him money. The counterclaim can't be more than $10,000. If it is, and the defendant is unwilling to give up the amount over $10,000, the case will be removed to the regular district court
Questions for Your Attorney
- I filed a small claims suit against a dog owner, who lives on the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know the complaint was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Complaint and represent me in small claims court?
- Is there any way I can challenge or fight the defendant's request to have the formal rules of civil procedure applied to my small claims case?