Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries
Shields v. Clark
A man and woman and the man’s grandmother decided to buy a home that they would share. They also decided that because the woman qualified for a mortgage with better terms than the others, the mortgage would be in her name. The grandmother sold her home to provide money to buy the shared home and signed a gift letter to enable the woman to qualify for a mortgage. The relationship between the man and woman deteriorated and she tried to sell the home. She refused to repay the grandmother the money the grandmother had contributed to the home purchase. The grandmother sued her. The superior court determined that the grandmother had not provided the money as a gift. The court also concluded that a written agreement the woman had signed confirmed their oral agreement to jointly buy the home and that therefore their agreement did not violate the statute of frauds. The court ordered the woman to repay the grandmother the money she had contributed to the home purchase, as well as a portion of the grandmother’s attorney’s fees. The woman appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Shields v. Clark" on Justia Law
Highlight Canyon, LLC v. Cioffoletti, et al.
In this case, the trial court dismissed a mining company’s claims when its sole filing in the prior year was a substitution of counsel. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the substitution of counsel was not a “proceeding” that terminated the period of delay. The Court also concluded that actions taken by the company after the defendant moved to dismiss for lack of prosecution do not preclude dismissal. “And because the company failed to clearly explain its dilatory conduct, the superior court did not abuse its discretion by finding no good cause for the failure to prosecute.” View "Highlight Canyon, LLC v. Cioffoletti, et al." on Justia Law
Posted in: Civil Procedure
Stockton v. Stockton
Wife Connie Stockton challenged a superior court’s order denying relief from judgment under Alaska Civil Rule 60(b). She sought to overturn a default judgment entered against her in 2013, that divided marital property upon divorce from her husband Veral Stockton. Asserting that she suffered from severe depression during the divorce proceedings and that her husband improperly served the notice of default, she argued the judgment was void for lack of due process and, alternatively, should have been vacated due to extraordinary circumstances. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s factual finding that she was not incompetent at the time of divorce and its legal rulings that the judgment was not void and extraordinary circumstances warranting relief were not shown. View "Stockton v. Stockton" on Justia Law
Doan v. Banner Health, Inc., et al.
A young woman died of heart failure while hospitalized. Her mother, acting on her own behalf and as personal representative of the woman’s estate, sued the hospital, several doctors, and the doctors’ employers for medical malpractice. In successive orders the superior court decided that all the witnesses proposed by the mother as medical experts failed to meet the statutory requirements for expert testimony on the relevant standards of care. The court also denied the mother’s motion to replace the rejected expert witnesses; granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the mother’s claim for damages for a lost chance of survival, deciding that such a claim was contrary to Alaska’s medical malpractice statutes; and found that the amended complaint sought to impermissibly allege a new claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the doctors. The mother appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that exclusion of the mother’s proposed expert witnesses rested on a misinterpretation of the statutes that governed standard-of-care testimony; this portion of the trial court's judgment was reversed for reconsideration within the proper statutory framework. The Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion by denying the mother’s tardy request to replace one of her expert witnesses, who had lost the necessary board certification years earlier. The Court also affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the loss of chance claim, concluding, as the superior court did, that whether to recognize such a claim was a policy choice for the legislature to make. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that under Alaska’s generous notice pleading rules, the mother adequately alleged a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the doctors, and it was not necessary for her to amend her complaint in order to pursue such a claim. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Doan v. Banner Health, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
Tuluksak Native Community v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvs.
removed an Alaska Native child from his mother and placed him with a relative, the child experienced suicidal ideation and checked himself into a psychiatric facility. Following a period of seemingly voluntary care, OCS requested a hearing to place the child at an out-of-state secure residential psychiatric treatment facility. The child’s Tribe intervened and challenged the constitutionality of AS 47.10.087, the manner in which evidence was received, and alleged due process violations. The child joined in some of these objections. The superior court ordered the child placed at a secure residential psychiatric treatment facility per AS 47.10.087. The Tribe, but not the child, appealed the placement decision, contending primarily that the superior court erred in proceeding under AS 47.10.087 and in making its substantive findings, and plainly erred in authorizing placement pursuant to AS 47.10.087 without addressing the Indian Child Welfare Act’s (ICWA) placement preferences. The Alaska Supreme Court found no error in the court’s application of AS 47.10.087 or its substantive findings, and thus affirmed the superior court’s placement determination. The Court expressed concern that the trial court failed to make required inquiries and findings related to ICWA’s placement preferences. However, this did not amount to plain error. The Supreme Court did not reach the Tribe’s other arguments as the Tribe has either waived them or lacked standing to raise them. View "Tuluksak Native Community v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvs." on Justia Law
Alaska, et al. v. Alaska St. Emp. Ass’n, et al.
Alaska, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement with the Alaska State Employees Association (ASEA), a public sector union representing thousands of State employees, including union members and nonmembers, deducted union members’ dues from their paychecks and deducted from nonmembers’ paychecks a mandatory “agency fee” and transmitted the funds to ASEA. In June 2018 the United States Supreme Court held in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Janus) that charging union agency fees to nonmember public employees violated their First Amendment rights by “compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” The State and ASEA modified their collective bargaining agreement to comply with Janus, and the State halted collecting agency fees from nonmembers. In 2019, after a change in executive branch administrations following the November 2018 election, the State took the position that Janus also required the State to take steps to protect union member employees’ First Amendment rights. The State contended that Janus required it to obtain union members’ clear and affirmative consent to union dues deductions, or else they too might be compelled to fund objectionable speech on issues of substantial public concern. The governor issued an administrative order directing the State to bypass ASEA and deal directly with individual union members to determine whether they wanted their dues deductions to continue and to immediately cease collecting dues upon request. Some union members expressed a desire to leave the union and requested to stop dues deductions; the State ceased collecting their union dues. The State then sued ASEA, seeking declaratory judgment that Janus compelled the State’s actions. ASEA countersued seeking to enjoin the State’s actions and recover damages for breach of the collective bargaining agreement and violations of several statutes. The superior court ruled in favor of ASEA, and the State appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s declaratory judgment in favor of ASEA because neither Janus nor the First Amendment required the State to alter the union member dues deduction practices set out in the collective bargaining agreement. And because the State’s actions were not compelled by Janus or the First Amendment, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s rulings that the State breached the collective bargaining agreement and violated relevant statutes. View "Alaska, et al. v. Alaska St. Emp. Ass'n, et al." on Justia Law
Downing v. Shoreside Petroleum, Inc., et al.
A tractor-trailer truck rear-ended a stopped car at a construction site, injuring the driver of the car. The injured driver was a successful surgeon, who suffered permanent injuries that limited her ability to practice medicine. She sued the truck driver and his employer for damages, including medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost earnings, and lost future earning capacity. After a bench trial, the superior court awarded damages for all categories except lost future earning capacity. Even though the court found that the surgeon had proven her injuries permanently impaired her future earning capacity, the court concluded that the surgeon had failed to prove the amount of her future lost earning capacity with reasonable certainty. The court reconsidered the defendants’ motion to dismiss several categories of damages, which it had previously denied, and dismissed the claim for lost future earning capacity. The court then found neither party was a prevailing party and ordered each side to be responsible for its own fees and costs. The surgeon appealed, arguing the superior court erred by requiring her to prove the amount of her future lost earnings to a “reasonable certainty.” She also argued that the court erred by not finding she was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded it was legal error to require proof of the amount of lost future earnings to a reasonable certainty and not to award at least nominal damages to the surgeon for the proven harm to her future earning capacity from her injuries. The Court therefore reversed the dismissal of the lost earning capacity claim and remanded for calculation of damages based on the appropriate standard of proof. As a result, the Court vacated the award of attorney’s fees pending the court’s determination on remand. View "Downing v. Shoreside Petroleum, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
Guerin, et al. v. Alaska, Division of Elections
Alaska’s United States Representative Don Young died unexpectedly in March 2022. Following his death, Alaska held a special primary election and a special general election to select a candidate to complete the remainder of his term. Those special elections were conducted using ranked-choice voting procedures adopted by voters through a 2020 ballot measure. After the 2022 special primary election but before the vote was certified, the candidate who then had the third-most votes withdrew. The Division of Elections (Division) determined that it would remove the withdrawn candidate’s name from the special general election ballot, but would not include on the ballot the candidate who had received the fifth-most votes in the special primary election. Several voters brought suit against the Division challenging that decision. The superior court determined the Division’s actions complied with the law and granted summary judgment in favor of the Division. The voters appealed. Due to the time-sensitive nature of election appeals, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court in a short order dated June 25, 2022. The Court explained that because the Division properly applied a statutorily mandated 64-day time limit that prevented the addition of the special primary’s fifth-place candidate to the special general election ballot, and because the statutory mandate did not violate the voters’ constitutional rights, summary judgment was affirmed in favor of the Division. View "Guerin, et al. v. Alaska, Division of Elections" on Justia Law
Teck American, Inc., et al. v. Valhalla Mining, LLC, et al.
After a mining company abandoned its mining claims, the claims were located and recorded by a second mining company, which also abandoned the claims. After the second company abandoned the claims, the first company attempted to cure its earlier abandonment. The same year that the first company filed to cure its abandonment, a third mining company attempted to locate and record ownership of some of the same claims. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) refused to issue permits to the third company, reasoning that the first one had validly cured its abandonment of its claims before the third company located the claims. After exhausting its administrative remedies, the third company appealed DNR’s decision. The superior court reversed DNR’s decision. Because DNR’s interpretation of the controlling statute was reasonable, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court decision and affirmed DNR’s decision. View "Teck American, Inc., et al. v. Valhalla Mining, LLC, et al." on Justia Law
AVCG, LLC v. Alaska Department of Natural Resources
Alaska Venture Capital Group, LLC (AVCG) owned interests in oil and gas leases on state lands. AVCG sought the State’s approval to create overriding royalty interests on the leases. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas denied AVCG’s requests, explaining that the proposed royalty burdens jeopardized the State’s interest in sustained oil and gas development. AVCG appealed. Five years later the DNR Commissioner affirmed. The superior court then affirmed the Commissioner’s decisions. AVCG appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the decisions improperly adopted a new regulation that did not undergo the rulemaking procedures of Alaska’s Administrative Procedure Act (APA). AVCG maintained that DNR’s reliance on specific factors - in particular, the fact that the proposed ORRIs would create a total royalty burden of over 20% on the leases - amounted to adopting a regulation. AVCG also argued that the decisions lacked a reasonable basis in fact and law and that, for some of its leases, no agency approval was required at all. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, and rejected AVCG's constitutional claim: that delay and an "ad hoc" decision-making process violated its procedural due process rights. View "AVCG, LLC v. Alaska Department of Natural Resources" on Justia Law