Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Mick and Cecilia Manns made unsuccessful applications for preference rights to purchase certain Alaska State land. The Mannses argued they were entitled to a preference right under AS 38.05.035(f) based on their business use of the land beginning in the mid­ 1970s. But this statute required the Mannses to establish business use beginning at least five years prior to State selection; in this case, the State selection occurred in 1972. The statute also required the Mannses to show some income reliance on the land for the five years preceding their application, but the Mannses did not submit any such evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision affirming the decision of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to deny the Mannses’ application. View "Manns v. Alaska, Dept. of Nat. Rec., Div. of Mining, Land & Water" on Justia Law

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In late 2014 Andy James was working in Deadhorse for Northern Construction & Maintenance, LLC, a company owned by John Ellsworth and members of his family. Ellsworth also owned Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc. Alaska Frontier had some kind of business relationship with Nanuq, Inc. In late December Northern Construction sent James from his usual work assignment to work in some capacity in connection with an ice road being constructed and maintained for Caelus Energy Alaska, LLC. James was instructed to work at the direction of Scott Pleas. Despite dangerous blizzard conditions, Pleas directed James to accompany another worker, Johann Willrich, to check fuel levels on equipment idling outside; James objected due to the weather, but was threatened with the loss of his job if he did not follow the direction. James complied; he climbed a large grader to fuel it, but a wind gust blew him off, resulting in shoulder and spinal injuries. James filed personal injury lawsuits, which were consolidated, against the companies. The companies sought and obtained summary judgment rulings that they had statutory employer immunity from the injury claims under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision. James appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because numerous issues of material fact made it impossible to determine whether the companies were entitled to judgment as a matter of law that they were immune from liability under the Act, summary judgment was reversed, the judgment against James vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "James v. Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc." on Justia Law

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A man appealed superior court orders authorizing his hospitalization for evaluation, his 30-day commitment, and the involuntary administration of psychotropic medication. He argued the superior court’s failure to conduct a screening investigation was an error that required vacation of the evaluation order and the commitment and medication orders that followed it. He also specifically challenged the commitment order, claiming that the court erred by relying on facts not in evidence and by finding clear and convincing evidence that he was gravely disabled and that commitment was the least restrictive alternative. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded: (1) that failing to perform a screening investigation was error, but the error was harmless because the court made findings supported by clear and convincing evidence when ordering a 30-day commitment; (2) it was also harmless error to rely to any extent on facts not in evidence because there was sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that the respondent was gravely disabled; (3) the superior court did not err when it found by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent was gravely disabled and that commitment was the least restrictive alternative, or when it granted the petition for involuntary hospitalization; and (4) the superior court did not err by finding that medication was in the respondent’s best interests and that there was no less intrusive alternative, or by granting the petition for its involuntary administration. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Rabi R." on Justia Law

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In October 2017 the Alaska Trust Land Office (Land Office) issued a best interest decision in favor of selling five lots of land owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust to Louis and Stacy Oliva. The Olivas' neighbors, Jeffrey and Bonnie West, submitted late comments opposing the sale. The Land Office accepted those comments as a request for reconsideration, but it ultimately denied the Wests' request and proceeded with the sale. The Wests appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the best interest decision. On appeal, the Wests argued the sale was not in the Trust’s best interest, the Land Office violated a number of statutes and regulations, and the agency’s public notice regulation was invalid. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Wests' first argument lacked merit, and the remaining issues were waived for various reasons. The Court therefore affirmed the best interest decision. View "West v. Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority" on Justia Law

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An Alaska Native teenage minor affiliated with the Native Village of Kotzebue (Tribe) was taken into custody by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and placed at a residential treatment facility in Utah. She requested a placement review hearing after being injured by a facility staff member. At the time of the hearing, the minor’s mother wanted to regain custody. At the hearing the superior court had to make removal findings under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), as well as findings authorizing continued placement in a residential treatment facility under Alaska law. At the hearing, the minor’s Utah therapist testified as a mental health professional. The minor, as well as her parents and the Tribe, objected to the witness being qualified as an ICWA expert, but the superior court allowed it. The minor argued the superior court erred in determining that the witness was qualified as an expert for the purposes of ICWA. Because the superior court correctly determined that knowledge of the Indian child’s tribe was unnecessary in this situation when it relied on the expert’s testimony for its ICWA findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of April S." on Justia Law

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Tiffany O., a woman in her 60s, developed epilepsy early in childhood and suffered from regular seizures. She was also diagnosed with intellectual disability, and was described as "unable to engage in a meaningful conversation." In 2007, Tiffany's daughter Rachel petitioned for the appointment of a guardian for Tiffany. In March 2008, the superior court appointed the Office of Public Advocacy to serve as Tiffany’s public guardian. After a period of working well together, the relationship between Rachel and the public guardian soured. Rachel twice petitioned for review of the guardianship. In June 2011 Rachel was appointed as Tiffany’s guardian. The daughter relied on faith-based medicine to care for her mother, electing to, in one instance, pray over her mother after she became nonresponsive instead of calling emergency services. The superior court ultimately removed the daughter as guardian, finding that her behavior and “intractable belief system” caused her to deprive her mother of appropriate services and care. The Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it removed the daughter as her mother’s guardian. The Court also concluded that removing the daughter as guardian did not violate the Alaska Constitution’s free exercise clause because the State possessed a compelling interest in preventing harm to the mother. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceedings of Tiffany O." on Justia Law

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In April 2015 Tracy Sampson was at the Kotzebue Airport, en route from Anchorage to her home in Selawik. She was walking from the Alaska Airlines terminal to the Bering Air terminal when she slipped and fell on ice. Paramedics brought her to the hospital emergency room. Medical staff took X-rays and told Sampson that she had fractured her kneecap and needed to go to Anchorage for surgery. Medical staff at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage informed Sampson that half of her kneecap was fractured and half was shattered. They subsequently performed surgery. After surgery, her knee was put in an immobilizer and a cast. She traveled back to Selawik around a week later and was bedridden for about two months. Sampson filed suit against the airline; a jury found the airline liable and awarded Sampson "substantial" damages. Sampson appealed, arguing the special verdict form contradicted the jury instructions. Because the verdict form was not plainly erroneous, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Sampson v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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Virgil Adams, a self-described journeyman carpenter, worked sporadically from 2009 to 2011 at a house located on Snow Bear Drive in Anchorage. He suffered a “T12 burst fracture with incomplete spinal cord injury” when he fell from the house’s roof in 2011, and became permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fall. He filed a claim with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, and, because the property owner for whom he worked had no workers’ compensation insurance, the Workers’ Compensation Guaranty Fund was joined to the workers’ compensation case. The Fund disputed whether the property owner for whom the carpenter worked was an “employer” as defined in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act and contended the worker’s intoxication caused the accident. The Board decided the injury was compensable based on two findings: (1) the property owner was engaged in a real-estate-related “business or industry” and (2) the worker’s alleged intoxication did not proximately cause the accident. The Fund appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission; the Commission reversed because, in its view, the Board applied an incorrect legal test in determining whether the property owner was an employer and no evidence in the record could support a determination that the property owner was engaged in a “business or industry” at the time of the injury. The Commission decided the intoxication issue was not ripe for review. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, finding the Board did not legally err and substantial evidence supported its employment-status decision. The matter was remanded to the Commission for consideration of the intoxication issue. View "Adams v. Alaska Workers Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund" on Justia Law

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Landowners Ronald and Annette Alleva settled a lawsuit against a the Municipality of Anchorage and organizations that operated a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen; the settlement agreement recited that the landowners accepted a sum of money in exchange for a release of present and future trespass and nuisance claims involving the organizations’ clients. Six years later the landowners filed this lawsuit asserting similar claims. Their complaint referred to the prior settlement, but they did not file the settlement agreement with the complaint. The defendants moved to dismiss, relying on the settlement agreement. The landowners argued that because the settlement agreement had not been filed with the complaint, it could not be used as a basis for dismissal under Alaska Civil Rule 12(b)(6). The superior court rejected the landowners’ argument, granted the motion to dismiss, and ruled in the alternative that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment. The landowners appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that the settlement agreement was properly considered on the motion to dismiss because it was addressed in the complaint and its authenticity was not questioned. The Supreme Court also agreed that the settlement barred the landowners’ current lawsuit. View "Alleva v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

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Edna K. appealed a child custody modification which declined to find a change of circumstance even though both parties sought to modify their joint custody agreement. Edna and Jeb S. never married but had one child together, G.S., in February 2012. The two had a “rocky” relationship and they separated permanently two and a half years after their son’s birth. Edna filed a complaint for primary physical custody with shared legal custody in October 2014. A private custody investigator met with the parties several times from June through August 2016. The investigator noted that the parties proposed nearly identical custodial arrangements. Rather than attempt to “substantiate or invalidate” the allegations of domestic violence raised by the parties, the custody investigator’s report stated that “50/50 custody . . . is what this investigator tried to reach.” The report briefly summarized Jeb’s criminal record and past reports of domestic violence, including a 2005 conviction for sexual abuse of a minor. The report contained only a half-page discussion on domestic violence, noting that although Jeb was the subject of a number of restraining orders, Edna’s 2015 motion stated that no domestic violence existed. The custody investigator also minimized the severity of Jeb’s conviction for sexual abuse of a minor because Jeb later obtained custody of the son born out of that relationship, so the investigator reasoned that “the court [did] not deem him a risk to his own children.” The report recommended shared legal custody and varying degrees of shared physical custody, depending on Jeb’s work schedule and location. With respect to the custody order at issue here, the superior court ruled that Edna was collaterally estopped from presenting evidence of Jeb’s history of domestic violence because the issue had been “adequately addressed” in the parties’ stipulated custody agreement. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s application of collateral estoppel was legal error and reversed the court’s application of collateral estoppel, vacated the court’s findings on changed circumstances, and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on issues of domestic violence. View "Edna K. v. Jeb S." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law