Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

by
A defendant convicted of first-degree murder appealed his conviction to the Alaska court of appeals, arguing that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on the law of self-defense. The court of appeals agreed the instruction was erroneous but concluded that the error was harmless and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. The defendant the Alaska Supreme Court to ask that it reverse the court of appeals’ decision and his conviction because the erroneous instruction relieved the State of its burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. To this, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the decisions of the superior court and court of appeals and vacated defendant’s conviction because the challenged instruction was legally incorrect and impermissibly lightened the prosecution’s burden to disprove self-defense. View "Jones-Nelson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

by
A man filed suit against a former romantic partner to resolve disputes about property acquired during their relationship. The superior court ruled the parties had been in a domestic partnership (a marriage-like relationship) with implications for division of the parties’ property when the relationship ended. It then determined the woman owed the man for his contributions toward a Wasilla property they jointly bought and improved, an out-of-state property acquired in his name that was later sold at a loss, and veterinary bills charged to the man’s credit card. Although the Alaska Supreme Court determined it was error to determine the parties were in a domestic partnership without making predicate factual findings, this error did not affect the superior court’s ruling on the Wasilla property or veterinary bills, and the superior court’s decision on those points was affirmed. But the Court concluded the error could affect the ruling on the out-of-state property, so the case was remanded for additional proceedings on that issue. View "Wright v. Dropik" on Justia Law

by
The superior court terminated a mother’s parental rights to her two children. Because the children were Indian children under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was required to make active efforts to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the family before the mother’s rights could be terminated. The superior court found clear and convincing evidence that OCS satisfied this requirement, although OCS’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. The mother appealed, challenging the active efforts finding. She asked the Alaska Supreme Court to overturn precedent allowing courts to consider a parent’s noncooperation and the resulting futility of OCS’s actions when determining whether OCS satisfied the active efforts standard. In the alternative, she argued that even under existing law the superior court’s active efforts finding was erroneous. After review, the Supreme Court agreed with the mother that the court erred by stating that active efforts “are dependent on [the mother’s] willingness to engage”; the active efforts inquiry depends primarily on OCS’s efforts, not the parent’s reaction to those efforts. The Court took an opportunity to clarify the extent to which a parent’s noncooperation was relevant to the active efforts analysis. "And although we disagree in part with the superior court’s approach in this case, we independently conclude that OCS’s efforts satisfy the active efforts standard," therefore affirming the termination order. View "Mona J. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvcs." on Justia Law

by
A man appealed a superior court order authorizing his civil commitment, arguing: (1) the order should have been vacated because the petition for commitment was not “signed by two mental health professionals,” as required by statute; and (2) the superior court erred by granting the commitment petition based on a theory of grave disability that was not specifically pled. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because the man did not object to the signature deficiency and could not show it prejudiced him, the error did not warrant vacating the commitment order. But, the Court found, committing the man on a theory of grave disability that was not specifically pled without giving him notice and an opportunity to present additional evidence or cross-examination relevant to that theory violated the man’s right to due process. The Court therefore vacated the commitment order. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Carl S." on Justia Law

by
Ryan Poole and Laramie Rainer had a child in June 2013. Poole and Rainer’s relationship ended in late 2013. Poole was incarcerated from March 2013 to October 2014. In December 2013, when the child was six months old and Poole was still incarcerated, Rainer sought sole legal and primary physical custody. Poole requested joint legal and physical custody and visitation every weekend until he was out of prison. While no custody order was in place, Poole asserted on several occasions that Rainer did not facilitate sufficient visitation with the child following the end of their relationship. A custody trial took place in February 2015. The court found both parties on equal footing with regard to most of the statutory best interests factors. The court ruled that Rainer should have primary physical custody but that Poole’s time with the child should be increased. It issued a custody order in March 2015 awarding joint legal custody and primary physical custody to Rainer while Poole lived outside of Anchorage. Poole was given unsupervised visitation that gradually increased from six hours per week to one week per month. In November 2017 Poole moved to enforce the court’s March 2015 order, claiming that despite attempting to contact Rainer to set up visitation, Rainer ignored his messages and calls since March 2015 and, as a result, he had seen his child only twice since the March 2015 court order. In September 2018 Poole again moved to enforce the March 2015 order, claiming again that Rainer was not responding to phone calls, and “only two visitation[]s were successful.” In June 2020 Poole moved to modify physical custody. The superior court ultimately found a substantial change due to poor communication and one parent interfering with the other’s visits. However, because the Alaska Supreme Court lacked sufficient factual findings to determine whether there was a substantial change in circumstances or whether a lesser sanction would have ensured compliance with the court’s custody order, it reversed and remanded for additional findings. View "Rainer v. Poole" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
by
In 2019 a woman sued her former husband’s medical provider, alleging that from 2003 to 2010 the provider negligently prescribed the husband opioid medications, leading to his addiction, damage to the couple’s business and marital estate, the couple’s divorce in 2011, and ultimately the husband's death in 2017. The superior court ruled the claims were barred by the statute of limitations and rejected the woman’s argument that the provider should have been estopped from relying on a limitations defense. Because the undisputed evidence shows that by 2010 the woman had knowledge of her alleged injuries, the provider’s alleged role in causing those injuries, and the provider’s alleged negligence, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the claims accrued at that time and were no longer timely when filed in 2019. And because the record did not show that the woman’s failure to timely file her claims stemmed from reasonable reliance on fraudulent conduct by the provider, the Supreme Court concluded that equitable estoppel did not apply. View "Park v. Spayd" on Justia Law

by
A miner signed a 20-year lease with a corporate landowner for an easement allowing him access to his limestone-mining operation. The lease included an option to extend it for up to three additional 10-year terms as long as the miner was not in default and gave prior written notice of his intent to extend. At the close of year 19, the miner sent a check prepaying the final calendar year, plus the six weeks following the lease’s expiration date. And after the expiration date the miner sent another check prepaying the next year (year 21) without ever providing the express notice of intent to extend required by the lease. The corporation accepted both of the rent checks. Five months later the corporation sued the miner and his company, contending that he was in breach and the lease had expired. The corporation later amended its complaint to add a claim for forcible entry and detainer seeking to recover possession of the premises by court order, and shortly afterward served the miner with a notice to quit. The court held a hearing nearly 11 months later and granted the forcible-entry claim. Appealing, the miner contended the parties’ dispute was too complex to be resolved through forcible entry and detainer proceedings with limited opportunities for discovery; that the forcible entry and detainer proceeding was unlawful because at the time the claim was asserted the corporation had not yet served the notice to quit; and that the miner’s company was improperly named as a defendant and included in the forcible entry and detainer judgment. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Caswell, et al. v. AHTNA, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Appellant Raymond Dapo filed suit against his adoptive mother for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred 13 years earlier. He then agreed to release the adoptive mother from liability in exchange for her filing a third-party equitable apportionment claim against the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and assigning the claim to him. OCS challenged the validity of this assignment. The superior court agreed with OCS that the assignment of the adoptive mother’s apportionment claim was void; it invalidated the assignment, dismissed the claim with prejudice, and awarded OCS attorney’s fees. Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because a defendant prosecuting a third-party equitable apportionment claim possessed nothing in the claim itself that could be assigned, such claims are not assignable, and the Court affirmed the superior court’s invalidation of the assignment in this case. But the Supreme Court also concluded that it was error to dismiss the apportionment claim with prejudice; the Court thus vacated the order of dismissal and remanded for the court to provide the adoptive mother a reasonable time to decide whether to pursue the claim herself. View "Dapo v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs" on Justia Law

by
An Alaska citizen filed an application to recall a member of the Anchorage Assembly, alleging that the assembly member had committed misconduct in office by participating in an indoor gathering of more than 15 people in violation of an executive order. The municipal clerk rejected the application after concluding that the alleged conduct did not constitute misconduct in office. The superior court reversed the clerk’s denial of the application. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Jones v. Biggs" on Justia Law

by
The superior court determined that the marital estate should be divided 60/40 in the husband’s favor because of his lower earning potential. But the court then considered the husband’s sale of the marital home: remodeling expenses and financial dealings were inadequately explained, and contributed to a loss of marital equity. The court offset that loss by dividing the wife’s retirement savings plan 70/30 in her favor. And because the retirement savings plan was the most significant marital asset, this allocation resulted in a property division that highly favored the wife. The husband appealed the property division, and also in the trial court's calculation of child support order. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the property division failed to follow the proper procedure for addressing the post-separation dissipation of marital assets: first valuing the dissipated asset at the time of separation and then crediting that amount to the responsible spouse in the property division. The Supreme Court also concluded that a figure for the amount of lost marital equity used in the property division was clearly erroneous. The Court therefore vacated the property division and remanded for further consideration. In all other respects the superior court’s judgment was affirmed. View "Rohde v. Rohde" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law