Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

by
About two months before the 2020 general election, a village government, a nonpartisan political organization, and two individual Alaska voters sought to enjoin the State from enforcing a statute that required absentee ballots to be witnessed by an official or other adult. They argued that, under the unusual circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the witness requirement unconstitutionally burdened the right to vote. The superior court granted a preliminary injunction, concluding that the State’s interests in maintaining the witness requirement were outweighed by the burden that requirement would impose on the right to vote during times of community lockdowns and strict limits on person-to-person contact. The court also rejected the State’s laches defense, reasoning that the unpredictability of the pandemic’s course made it reasonable for the plaintiffs to wait as long as they did before filing suit. The State petitioned for review. After an expedited oral argument the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision, finding no abuse of discretion. This opinion explained the Court's reasoning. View "Alaska, Office of Lieutenant Governor, Division of Elections v. Arctic Village Council, et al." on Justia Law

by
In 2012, the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) issued an advisory opinion stating that the contribution limits in Alaska’s campaign finance law were unconstitutional as applied to contributions to independent expenditure groups. In 2018, three individuals filed complaints with APOC alleging that independent expenditure groups had exceeded Alaska’s contribution limits. APOC declined to enforce the contribution limits based on its advisory opinion. The individuals appealed to the superior court, which reversed APOC’s dismissal of the complaints and ordered APOC to reconsider its advisory opinion in light of a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. APOC appealed, arguing that it should not have been required to enforce laws it viewed as unconstitutional and that its constitutional determination was correct. Because the Alaska Supreme Court found it was error to reverse APOC’s dismissal of the complaints, it reversed the superior court’s order. View "Alaska Public Offices Commission v. Patrick, et al." on Justia Law

by
Before getting married, Andy drafted a prenuptial agreement. Abbie first saw the agreement the night before their wedding, when she was intoxicated. The agreement, designed to protect Andy’s substantial assets, designated only certain earnings marital property. It referenced an investment account for Abbie’s benefit, but the paragraph pertaining to this account contained only the words “Not Used,” and no such account was ever created. The superior court enforced the agreement over Abbie’s objection that it was not voluntarily executed. The court then ruled that all income reported on the parties’ tax returns during the marriage was part of the marital estate subject to division and awarded Abbie an additional sum to compensate for the nonexistent investment account. The Alaska Supreme Court determined this interpretation of the agreement was erroneous and key facts relevant to whether the agreement was enforceable were not addressed, thus, the Court reversed the superior court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Andrew B. v. Abbie B." on Justia Law

by
The issue this case presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review centered on a challenge to the lieutenant governor’s decision that the sponsors of an initiative, “An Act changing the oil and gas production tax for certain fields, units, and nonunitized reservoirs on the North Slope,” had collected enough signatures to allow the initiative to appear on the ballot in the 2020 general election. Entities opposed to the initiative argued that signatures should not have been counted because the signature gatherers (the circulators) falsely certified that their compensation complied with Alaska election law. The statute governing circulator compensation allows them to be paid no more than “$1 a signature.” The superior court decided that this statute was unconstitutional because it imposed an unreasonable burden on core political speech — “interactive communication concerning political change.” It therefore concluded that the lieutenant governor properly counted the challenged signatures and properly certified the initiative petition for the ballot. The entities opposed to the initiative filed this appeal. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in August 2020, and on August 31 issued a summary order affirming the superior court’s judgment. This opinion explained the Court's decision. View "In re Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

by
The Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission denied an individual’s request for a hearing regarding a reported natural gas leak and whether the leak constituted “waste” under Alaska law. The agency concluded it had no jurisdiction over the matter because it previously had investigated and had concluded the leak did not constitute “waste.” The individual appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the agency’s decision. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding the individual's request for a hearing was improperly denied: "The Commission has jurisdiction over waste determinations, and substantial evidence does not support its assertion that it investigated and concluded this leak was not waste." View "French v. Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission" on Justia Law

by
The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied a two-year limitations period to claims for “compensation for disability.” In 1988, the legislature reconfigured one type of compensation — for permanent partial disability — as compensation for permanent partial impairment. The claimant here argued this amendment exempted claims for impairment compensation from the statute of limitations. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed: because the statutory text contains ambiguity and the legislative history evinced no intent to exempt impairment claims from the statute of limitations, the Court ruled that claims for impairment compensation were subject to the Act’s two-year limitations period. A secondary issue in this case was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board properly denied paralegal costs for work related to other claims. The applicable regulation required a claim for paralegal costs be supported by the paralegal’s own affidavit attesting to the work performed. To this, the Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s argument that this regulation was contrary to statute and the constitution. View "Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law

by
A minor was severely injured in an all-terrain vehicle collision in which the other driver was at fault. The minor had medical benefits coverage through a health care plan provided by her father’s employer, the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As allowed by the terms of the plan, the Borough refused to pay the minor’s medical bills until she signed an agreement that included a waiver of certain defenses to the Borough’s subrogation rights, such as the common fund and made-whole doctrines. The minor refused to sign the agreement without reservation and filed suit, seeking a declaration that the Borough could not condition payment of her medical bills on her signature. The superior court decided on summary judgment that the Borough’s health care plan was not a true insurance plan and that, regardless of whether it was interpreted as an insurance policy or an ordinary contract, the parties could lawfully reject subrogation defenses. The minor appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the health care plan was a bargained-for employee benefit rather than a true insurance policy, and that the superior court’s interpretation of it was correct. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Best v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Beverly Sumpter worked as a school aide. She reported an injury to her cervical spine after she repositioned a disabled student in his wheelchair. Sumpter had significant preexisting cervical spine problems. Doctors disagreed about whether the incident she described could have aggravated these problems and if so for how long. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that her work was not the substantial cause of her ongoing disability and need for medical care, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Sumpter appealed, contending that the Board and Commission applied incorrect legal standards and that the Board failed to make findings about material and contested issues. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District" on Justia Law

by
A jury entered a verdict for the defense in a medical malpractice suit, finding medical negligence but also finding that the negligence did not cause harm. During later conversations with jurors, plaintiffs’ representatives learned that at least some jurors believed the verdict was incorrectly entered because, although there were at least 10 votes (among the 12 jurors) to find that there was medical negligence, there were not 10 votes to find that the medical negligence did not cause harm. Juror affidavits then were prepared and filed with a motion for a new trial. The trial court admitted the affidavits into evidence and exercised its discretion to order a new trial in the interests of justice. The defendants petitioned for the Alaska Supreme Court's review of the new trial order, and the Supreme Court concluded it was error to admit the juror affidavits into evidence and, therefore, there was no evidentiary basis for the trial court to grant a new trial. Accordingly, the Court reversed the order for a new trial and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of the defendants consistent with the jury verdict rendered in court at the close of the trial. View "Trescot v. Foy" on Justia Law

by
Property owners sued the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, challenging the validity of easements that crossed their property to give access to neighboring residences. The superior court dismissed most of the property owners’ claims on res judicata grounds, reasoning that the claims had been brought or could have been brought in two earlier suits over the same easements. The court also granted the Borough’s motions for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings on the property owners’ claims involving the validity of construction permits, redactions in public records, and whether the Borough had acquired a recent easement through the appropriate process. However, one claim remained: whether the Borough violated the property owners’ due process rights by towing their truck from the disputed roadway. The court found in favor of the Borough on this claim, and awarded the Borough enhanced attorney’s fees, finding that the property owners had pursued their claims vexatiously and in bad faith. The property owners appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court, View "Windel v Matanuska-Susitna Borough" on Justia Law