Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

by
A mother no longer wished to serve as her adult daughter’s guardian due to fear of her daughter’s violence. The superior court held a hearing to determine whether to allow the mother to resign and appoint a public guardian from the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) to serve as the daughter’s guardian instead. After a brief exchange, the superior court allowed the daughter to waive her right to counsel and consent to appointment of a public guardian. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed because the superior court did not sufficiently establish that the waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceeding of Amy D." on Justia Law

by
A patient sued a hospital after learning that a hospital employee intentionally disclosed the patient’s health information in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The patient alleged the disclosure breached the hospital’s contractual obligations to him. The superior court instructed the jury to return a verdict for the hospital if the jury found that the employee was not acting in the course and scope of employment when she disclosed the patient’s information. The jury so found, leading to judgment in the hospital’s favor. The Alaska Supreme Court found the jury instruction erroneously applied the rule of vicarious liability to excuse liability for breach of contract. "A party that breaches its contractual obligations is liable for breach regardless of whether the breach is caused by an employee acting outside the scope of employment, unless the terms of the contract excuse liability for that reason." The Court therefore reversed judgment and remanded for further proceedings, in particular to determine whether a contract existed between the patient and hospital and, if so, the contract’s terms governing patient health information. View "Guy v. Providence Health & Services Washington" on Justia Law

by
Gavora, Inc., a real estate company, acquired an existing long-term lease with a purchase option for a municipality-owned property. Dry-cleaning businesses operating on the property contaminated the groundwater both prior to and during the real estate company’s involvement. The municipality knew about, but did not disclose, groundwater contamination at nearby sites when the real estate company ultimately purchased the property. A state agency later notified Gavora and the municipality of their potential responsibility for environmental remediation. Gavora sued the municipality in federal district court; the federal court determined that the parties were jointly and severally liable for the contamination, and apportioned remediation costs. Gavora also sued the municipality in state court for indemnity and further monetary damages, alleging that the municipality had misrepresented the property’s environmental status during purchase negotiations. The superior court ruled in the municipality’s favor, finding the municipality did not actively deceive Gavora; Gavora had reason to know of the contamination; and all physical harm occurred before the sale. Gavora challenged all three findings. Finding no error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Gavora, Inc. v. City of Fairbanks" on Justia Law

by
A man with severe mental illness stabbed his parents during a psychotic episode and was subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital. He appealed that commitment order. Before the commitment hearing, he stopped taking prescribed medications, leading hospital staff to petition for permission to administer medication involuntarily. The court granted the medication petition as well as a revised petition requesting a higher dose. He also appealed the order authorizing involuntary administration of medication. Finding the superior court did not err in its finding there was no less restrictive alternative to confinement, or that the court did not err petitioner lacked capacity to give or withhold consent to psychotropic medication, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed both orders. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Mark V." on Justia Law

by
This matter arose from four Child in Need of Aid (CINA) cases. In each, the superior court appointed a guardian ad litem for the child through the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA), and in each case Brenda Finley, working under contract with OPA, appeared as the GAL. Pursuant to CINA Rule 11(e), Finley disclosed to the parties that she was a foster parent in another CINA case. She stated that she did not believe that her role as a foster parent “will affect her ability to be [impartial] in this specific case, or in other cases.” A parent in each case moved for an evidentiary hearing “regarding whether Ms. Finley should be disqualified as a guardian ad litem.” Arguing that Finley’s role as a foster parent might create a conflict of interest due to her relationship with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) as both a foster parent and a GAL, the parents sought additional details to determine whether a conflict existed, suggesting a hearing would allow them to elicit information regarding Finley’s past, present, and possible future tenure as a foster parent, the status of the cases in which she served as a foster parent, her financial arrangements with OCS, and her relationship with OCS workers. Both OCS and OPA filed qualified oppositions to the parents’ request for a hearing, arguing: that categorical disqualification of foster parents from serving as GALs was overbroad; the court should provide clarity on what framework should govern the potential conflict; and that a low bar for disqualification would fail to recognize “the difficulty of keeping positions in child welfare staffed by qualified individuals, ideally with ties to the community . . . .” The Alaska Supreme Court held that the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct applied to determine whether the GAL has a disqualifying conflict of interest and that the superior court must permit limited discovery to ascertain the underlying facts for determining whether a disqualifying conflict exists. View "C.L. v. Office of Public Advocacy" on Justia Law

by
A minor in the custody of the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was brought to a hospital for mental health treatment. A hospital social worker then petitioned the superior court to have the minor involuntarily hospitalized at a psychiatric facility for a mental health evaluation. The court held a brief ex parte telephonic inquiry at which it took the social worker’s sworn testimony. The court concluded that the minor was a danger to herself and granted the petition. Under the statute governing involuntary commitments, the court was required to hold an evidentiary hearing within 72 hours if the psychiatric facility intended to continue providing treatment beyond that time. Before any hearing, however, OCS informed the court that it consented to the minor’s 30-day commitment for treatment; it contended that its consent made the 30-day commitment “voluntary” and, under the statute governing parental admissions, no hearing was required. The court eventually held an evidentiary hearing nearly 30 days after the minor’s initial hospitalization for evaluation. The court decided that the standards for a 30-day commitment were met because there was clear and convincing evidence that the minor had a mental illness, that she posed a risk of harm to herself, and that there were no less restrictive means of treatment available. The court also concluded that OCS had the statutory authority to admit a child in its care under the parental admissions statute. The first 30 days of the minor’s commitment were therefore considered voluntary, and her continued hospitalization would be considered under the involuntary commitment framework only after those 30 days expired. The court further determined that, because the 30-day limit under the parental admission statute was separate from the 30-day limit before a jury trial was required under the involuntary commitment statute, the minor could be held for an additional 30 days — 60 days total — before there was any need for a trial. The minor appealed, arguing the superior court violated her due process rights by not allowing her to be heard at the initial inquiry, when the petitioner testified under oath, and by treating her initial 30-day commitment as voluntary. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the minor’s hospitalization for evaluation complied with due process; a hearing was not required at the ex parte review stage, and a judge’s decision to hold a brief inquiry with the petitioner did not give the respondent a right to be heard. But the Supreme Court further concluded that it was error to treat the initial 30-day commitment as voluntary, because OCS was not a parent or guardian statutorily authorized to use the voluntary parental admission framework. Because the 30-day commitment should have been considered involuntary, any further hospitalization could not be ordered absent a full hearing or jury trial. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court order characterizing the first 30-day commitment as voluntary and authorizing an additional 30 days of commitment. View "In the Matter of the Hospitalization of April S." on Justia Law

by
The superior court terminated a mother’s parental rights to her daughter after a termination trial. The mother appealed, and the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that on the facts of this case, the mother preserved her evidentiary appeal point. The Court rejected the Office of Children’s Services’s (OCS) assertion that the mother waived her evidentiary objection by not repeatedly raising it to every question asked during the relevant testimony. The Court also concluded that, because the superior court did not explain its evidentiary ruling at any point during the relevant testimony or in its termination decision, it could not determine: (1) whether the court allowed some or all of the hearsay testimony for limited purposes; (2) how the court used the hearsay evidence to reach its findings; or (3) whether the court erred or abused its discretion by allowing and relying on the hearsay testimony. The case was therefore remanded to the superior court for a full explanation of its evidentiary ruling, how the ruling related to the hearsay testimony, and how the hearsay testimony related to the trial court’s findings. View "M.B. (Mother) v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

by
A group of defrauded investors brought a lawsuit in Washington State seeking to recover assets they alleged had been fraudulently conveyed to perpetrators of the fraud. The investors discovered that the alleged perpetrators owned land in Alaska in the name of a mining company. They filed an action in Alaska superior court for fraudulent conveyance and to quiet title to the property. The Washington case was later dismissed; the Alaska superior court then granted summary judgment against the investors, concluding that as a result of the dismissal of the Washington case they lacked the creditor status necessary to give them standing to pursue their Alaska claims. The court awarded attorney’s fees to the mining company as the prevailing party. The investors had only one apparent asset: a potential legal malpractice claim against their Alaska attorneys for having filed a fatally defective claim. The investors disavowed any intention of pursuing such a claim, but the mining company moved for a writ of execution, seeking the involuntary assignment of the potential claim to itself. The superior court denied the mining company’s motion, concluding that Alaska law, for public policy reasons, did not allow the involuntary assignment of legal malpractice claims. The mining company appeals. Because the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court’s conclusion that legal malpractice claims could not be involuntarily assigned, it affirmed the order denying the writ of execution. View "PADRM Gold Mine, LLC v. Perkumpulan Investor Crisis Center Dressel - WBG" on Justia Law

by
After a woman died and left a will disposing of several parcels of real property and two trailers, her ex-husband — with whom she had maintained a romantic relationship following divorce — filed claims against the woman’s estate for those properties. He contended the decedent had transferred title to three of those parcels to him. He also claimed that they made an agreement about two parcels and the trailer that sat on them: he and the decedent would live there until their deaths, after which the properties would be sold and the proceeds given solely to their great-grandchild. The estate rejected these claims, invoking the statute of frauds. The superior court ruled in favor of the estate, finding that the ex-husband failed to prove the existence of contracts satisfying the statute of frauds and rejecting his alternative claims for restitution. On appeal, the ex-husband argued the proceedings were marred by procedural flaws, and challenged the superior court’s decision on the merits. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court largely affirmed the superior court’s decision, but remanded for further proceedings on the restitution claim involving one parcel. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Alexina Rodman" on Justia Law

by
The grandmother of an Indian child was appointed as the child’s guardian. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of the child after the grandmother admitted using methamphetamine and the child tested positive for the drug. After working with the grandmother to address her drug use and other issues, OCS petitioned to terminate the grandmother’s guardianship. Following a hearing, the superior court found that termination of the guardianship was in the child’s best interests and removed the grandmother as guardian. The grandmother appealed, arguing that her removal violated the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and that termination of the guardianship was not in the child’s best interests. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s removal of the grandmother as guardian. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceedings of: Baron W." on Justia Law