Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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In a case of first impression for the Alaska Supreme Court, at issue was the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to a catatonic, non-consenting patient. In March 2017, police officers found Lucy G. in an Anchorage parking lot, wet and shivering. She was taken to a local hospital, where she initially exhibited “agitated, self-harming, and disoriented” behaviors requiring sedation for her and the staff’s safety. Lucy, who was calm but unresponsive by the end of the day, was diagnosed as catatonic. Hospital staff also noted her prior schizophrenia diagnosis and psychotropic medication prescriptions, as well as hospitalization the prior month. After a petition by hospital staff, the superior court authorized Lucy’s hospitalization for an involuntary commitment evaluation. She would ultimately be diagnosed with catatonia, involuntarily committed for 30 days, and given psychotropic medication and involuntary ECT. At the superior court hearing, the parties agreed that constitutional standards established in Myers v. Alaska Psychiatric Institute, 138 P.3d 238 (Alaska 2006) for ordering involuntary, non-emergency administration of psychotropic medication also applied to involuntary ECT. The patient argued there should have been heightened standards for ordering involuntary ECT and that, in any event, the superior court’s Myers analysis was legally deficient. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the superior court did not plainly err by applying the existing Myers constitutional standards to authorize involuntary ECT to the non-consenting patient. The Court also held the superior court made sufficient findings related to each relevant, contested mandatory Myers factor. Therefore, the Court surmised these findings supported the court’s involuntary ECT order. View "In the Matter of the Necessity of the Hospitalization of Lucy G." on Justia Law

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The Board of Directors of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America increased the amount of annual membership dues. Farthest North Girl Scout Council, its executive director, and the chair of its board of directors challenged this increase, claiming that the corporation’s governing documents did not give the Board authority to increase membership dues. The superior court denied Farthest North’s motion for summary judgment, ruling in favor of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America that the Board had such authority. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed, finding the corporate governing documents vested authority to establish membership dues solely in the National Council of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. View "Farthest North Girl Scout Council v. Girl Scouts of the United States of America" on Justia Law

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A minor died in a motorized watercraft accident on a lake managed in part by a municipality: the State owned the lake but shared management authority with the City. State law at the relevant time allowed motorized watercraft on the lake as long as they did not degrade or damage the lake or its surroundings. A State land use plan also covered the lake, but the plan did not appear to regulate watercraft use. Like the State’s land use plan, the City’s comprehensive land use plan required only that the lake be managed to preserve the area’s natural features. The City did not have a separate land use plan for the lake. The minor’s mother sued, claiming that the municipality negligently failed to take measures to ensure safe operation of motorized watercraft on the lake. The municipality sought summary judgment based on discretionary function immunity, which the superior court granted. Because the superior court correctly applied the doctrine of discretionary function immunity, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed its decision. View "Haight,v. City & Borough of Juneau" on Justia Law

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A hotel housekeeper injured her back while lifting a pile of linens. Her employer challenged her application for benefits based on an examining doctor’s opinion that she was medically stable and that the job injury was no longer the substantial cause of any disability or need for medical treatment. After a hearing, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that the woman was medically stable as of the date of the doctor’s opinion and therefore not entitled to further disability payments or to benefits for permanent partial impairment. The Board also denied further medical care after the date of medical stability. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision, and the woman appealed. Because the Board’s selected date of medical stability was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated the Commission’s decision and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. View "Tobar v. Remington Holdings LP" on Justia Law

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Mother, Anette H., appealed the termination of her parental rights to her son, who was found to be a child in need of aid based on a hair follicle test positive for controlled substances. She argued that without proof that her drug use caused the child’s exposure, there was no causal link between her conduct and any circumstances that may have endangered the child. She also argued the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) did not make reasonable efforts to reunify the family because it failed to adequately accommodate her mental health issues. Because the record supported the superior court’s finding that the child was in need of aid, and because OCS’s efforts were reasonable under the circumstances, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed termination of the mother’s parental rights. View "Annette H. v. Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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Two prisoners in Alaska Department of Corrections’ (DOC) custody were placed in administrative segregation pending an investigation and disciplinary proceedings related to an alleged escape attempt. The disciplinary decisions were later overturned on appeal to the superior court based on procedural defects. However, the prisoners had lost their Prison Industries jobs because of the administrative segregation placements. They filed a civil suit against two DOC officers in superior court, alleging due process violations and seeking damages for lost wages and property. The case was removed to federal court; the federal judge ruled that the inmates lacked a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs and that the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Meanwhile, the prisoners filed another complaint in the superior court, this time naming the officers in both their official and individual capacities and raising due process claims under both the United States and Alaska Constitutions. After both parties cross-moved for summary judgment, the superior court granted summary judgment for the DOC officers, finding that although the federal judgment did not bar the prisoners’ complaint under the doctrine of res judicata, their constitutional claims lacked merit and the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The prisoners appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing they had a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs; that this interest was clearly established and therefore precludes a qualified immunity defense; that the superior court made various procedural errors; and that it did not adequately instruct the unrepresented prisoners on how to pursue their claims. Because the Supreme Court found the administrative segregation hearings conducted by DOC satisfied any due process requirements to which the prisoners may have been entitled, and because the superior court did not abuse its discretion in any of its procedural rulings, it affirmed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment. View "Smith v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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After 36 years of service with the Alaska Railroad Corporation, most of those years as a conductor, Harry Ross, an African-American man, applied for a newly created managerial trainmaster position, but he was not chosen. He brought an unsuccessful internal racial discrimination complaint. He brought a similar complaint before the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, and it was denied. He then appealed to the superior court, and it ultimately affirmed the Commission’s determination that he had failed to carry his burden of showing racial discrimination. On appeal to us, the man contends that the Railroad’s stated reasons for not hiring him were pretextual. Although the Alaska Supreme Court found some basis for Ross’ arguments that a hiring panel member may have harbored racial prejudice and that the explanation that he was not chosen because of poor interview performance was a post-hoc rationalization, the Court reviewed the Commission’s determination only for substantial supporting evidence. Under this deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court concluded the evidence detracting from the Commission’s determination was not dramatically disproportionate to the supporting evidence. Because substantial evidence in the record thus supported the Commission’s determination, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision upholding it. View "Ross v. Alaska Human Rights Commission" on Justia Law

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Jerry and Brenda McCavit built a dock extending into Wasilla Lake from their upland property. Their neighbors, Barbara and Louis Lacher, sued the McCavits claiming the dock unreasonably interfered with their riparian rights and constituted a private nuisance. The superior court found for the Lachers and issued an injunction ordering the McCavits to remove a portion of their dock. The McCavits appealed. Because the Alaska Supreme Court, by this case, announced a new rule of reasonableness regarding riparian or littoral rights, it vacated the superior court’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Order Granting Injunctive Relief and Nuisance Abatement, remanded for the superior court to conduct the proper legal analysis, and vacated the superior court’s award for attorney’s fees and costs. View "McCavit v. Lacher" on Justia Law

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An inmate representing himself sued the prison superintendent and chaplain for violating his religious rights by providing an inadequate halal diet, banning scented prayer oils, and not allowing him to have additional religious texts in his cell beyond the prison’s limit. He claimed these actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of both the Alaska Constitution and the federal Constitution, and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The inmate also sought reimbursement for scented oils that the prison had destroyed. The superior court granted the prison officials’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the inmate’s claims. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed summary judgment on the inmate’s RLUIPA claim regarding the halal diet because the inmate did not receive adequate guidance on how to file affidavits in opposition to the summary judgment motion. The Court also reversed summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim regarding scented oils because the prison officials failed to satisfy their burden of proving that banning such oils was the least restrictive means to address their substantial interest in maintaining prison security and health. The Court affirmed dismissal of the inmate’s claims regarding the religious book limit because the issue was not yet ripe. And the Court vacated the award of attorney’s fees and costs. View "Leahy v. Conant" on Justia Law

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In a divorce case, the superior court divided the marital estate equally. The estate included the marital home and an adjoining lot, which the spouses agreed should be sold. The husband remained in the home after the wife moved out, and he paid the mortgage until the properties sold nearly two years after the divorce was final. Once the properties sold, the parties requested a hearing on the allocation of the sale proceeds. The husband argued that he should be reimbursed for his post-divorce mortgage payments. The wife countered that the husband’s use of the home as his residence offset any claim he otherwise had to reimbursement. The superior court denied reimbursement to the husband, and the husband appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the findings in the court’s order allocating the sale proceeds were insufficient, so it remanded the case for additional findings. View "Hall v. Hall" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law