Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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Borrowers brought suit alleging that their lending bank had engaged in fraudulent real estate lending practices. The bank responded that statutes of limitations barred the borrowers’ fraud claims. Following an evidentiary hearing to establish relevant dates for the statutes of limitations inquiry, the superior court entered judgment and awarded attorney’s fees in the bank’s favor. The borrowers appealed, arguing that the superior court erred in its factual and legal determinations and otherwise violated their due process rights. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s rulings. View "Taffe v. First National Bank of Alaska" 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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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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A father appealed a superior court’s denial of his motion to modify child support, arguing his house arrest while awaiting trial on federal charges should have been considered involuntary unemployment for purposes of calculating child support. He also argued remand is necessary for an evidentiary hearing and for the superior court to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the father made a prima facie showing of a substantial change in circumstances that would entitle him to an evidentiary hearing, the case was remanded to the superior court to conduct an evidentiary hearing. View "Schwier v. Schwier" on Justia Law

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Two federal district courts certified questions of law to the Alaska Supreme Court involving the state’s “mineral dump lien” statute. In 1910, the United States Congress passed Alaska’s first mineral dump lien statute, granting laborers a lien against a “dump or mass” of hard-rock minerals for their work creating the dump. The mineral dump lien statute remained substantively unchanged since, and rarely have issues involving the statute arisen. The Supreme Court accepted certified questions from both the United States District Court and the United States Bankruptcy Court regarding the scope of the mineral dump lien statute as applied to natural gas development. Cook Inlet Energy, LLC operated oil and gas wells in southcentral Alaska. In November 2014, Cook Inlet contracted with All American Oilfield, LLC to “drill, complete, engineer and/or explore three wells” on Cook Inlet’s oil and gas leaseholds. All American began work soon thereafter, including drilling rig operations, digging holes, casing, and completing the gas wells. When All American concluded its work the following summer, Cook Inlet was unable to pay. In June 2015 All American recorded liens against Cook Inlet, including a mine lien under AS 34.35.125 and a mineral dump lien under AS 34.35.140. In October, after its creditors filed an involuntary petition for relief, Cook Inlet consented to Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. In January 2016 All American filed an adversary proceeding in the bankruptcy court “to determine the validity and priority of its secured claims.” The bankruptcy court found that All American has a valid mine lien against the three wells. But the court denied All American’s asserted mineral dump lien against unextracted gas remaining in natural reservoirs. The court also concluded that All American’s mine lien was subordinate to Cook Inlet’s secured creditors’ prior liens, which would have consumed all of Cook Inlet’s assets and leave All American with nothing. All American appealed to the federal district court, which, in turn, certified questions regarding the Alaska mineral dump lien statute. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the statutory definition of “dump or mass” reflected that a mineral dump lien could extend only to gas extracted from its natural reservoir, that the lien may cover produced gas contained in a pipeline if certain conditions are met, and that to obtain a dump lien laborers must demonstrate that their work aided, broadly, in gas production. View "In re: Cook Inlet Energy, LLC, Gebhardt, v. Inman" on Justia Law

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John Diamond, III was assaulted and sustained severe injuries while a patron at Platinum Jaxx, a restaurant and bar. He filed suit against Platinum Jaxx, Inc., its landlord, and his assailant, Noel Bungay. A default was entered against Bungay, and the landlord was later granted summary judgment on the claims against it. Diamond proceeded to trial on his remaining claims against Platinum Jaxx. After an eight-day trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding Platinum Jaxx criminally negligent. The jury awarded Diamond $1.85 million in damages and apportioned fault between Platinum Jaxx and Bungay. Platinum Jaxx was found to be 20% at fault for the injuries Diamond received, and Bungay was found 80% at fault. Diamond appealed the superior court’s pre-trial order that precluded him from proceeding on a piercing the corporate veil theory, asking the Alaska Supreme Court to reverse the order and remand to allow the superior court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law on the veil piercing issue. He also challenged other pre-trial orders excluding evidence, and determination of post-judgment cost award allocation. Because Diamond did not plead the veil piercing issue, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order. The superior court also did not abuse its discretion by excluding the challenged evidence and by allocating costs according to the percentage of fault of each defendant. View "Diamond III v. Platinum Jaxx, Inc." on Justia Law

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Jeff Graham was employed as a firefighter/EMT by the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD). He worked for AFD since 1995 and has held his then-current position since 2003. After taking AFD’s engineer promotional exam in 2010, Graham wrote a letter to the AFD fire chief criticizing the subjective nature of the test. In 2012 Graham failed the interview portion of the engineer exam. He subsequently filed a complaint with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, alleging discrimination on the basis of his race (Korean) and age (48). He also petitioned his union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1264 (the Union), to file a grievance against the Municipality of Anchorage on his behalf, under the Union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Municipality. Graham later prevailed in a civil suit against the Municipality of Anchorage for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. He was awarded partial attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(1). Graham argued he should have instead been awarded full fees and costs under his union’s collective bargaining agreement with the Municipality. Because the fee recovery provision in the agreement was not applicable to Graham’s case, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order denying Graham’s motion for full attorney’s fees and costs. View "Graham v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

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Johnny Williams worked for Violeta Baker and her home healthcare services company, Last Frontier Assisted Living, LLC (Last Frontier), from 2004 to 2009. Baker hired Johnny to provide payroll, tax-preparation, bookkeeping, and bill-paying services. She authorized him to make payments from her accounts, both for tax purposes and business expenses, such as payroll. She also gave him general authority to access her checking account and to execute automated clearing house (ACH) transactions from her accounts. In addition, Baker allowed Johnny to write checks bearing her electronic signature. Johnny did not invoice Baker for his labor; rather he and Baker had a tacit understanding that he would pay himself a salary from Baker’s payroll for his services. In 2009 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified Baker that her third-quarter taxes had not been filed and she owed a penalty and interest. Baker contacted Johnny to find out why the taxes had not been filed. When he could not produce a confirmation that he had e-filed them, Baker contacted her son for help. Baker’s son discovered that several checks had been written from Baker’s accounts to Personalized Tax Solutions (a business he maintained) and Deverette. A CPA audited the books and found that Johnny’s services over the time period could be valued between $47,500 and $55,000. Subtracting this from the total in transfers to Johnny, Deverette, and Personalized Tax Solutions resulted in an overpayment to the Williamses of approximately $950,000. A superior court found Deverette and Johnny Williams liable for defrauding Baker, after concluding that both owed her fiduciary duties and therefore had the burden of persuasion to show the absence of fraud. The court totaled fraud damages at nearly five million dollars and trebled this amount under Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). After final judgment was entered against Deverette and Johnny, Johnny died. Deverette appealed her liability for the fraud. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed Deverette’s liability for the portion of the fraud damages that the superior court otherwise identified as her unjust enrichment. But the Court reversed the superior court’s conclusion that she owed Baker a fiduciary duty, and reversed the UTPA treble damages against Deverette. The Court vacated the superior court’s fraud conclusion as to Deverette and remanded for further proceedings. View "Williams v. Baker" on Justia Law