Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

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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

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Petitioner Lorna Weston was seriously injured when she slipped and fell on ice in a hotel parking lot. Medicare covered her medical expenses, settling the providers’ bills by paying less than one-fifth of the amounts billed. When she later sued the hotel for negligence, the hotel sought to bar her from introducing her original medical bills as evidence of her damages, arguing that only the amount Medicare actually paid was relevant and admissible. The superior court agreed and excluded the evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court granted Weston's petition for review the following questions: (1) whether evidence of medical expenses was properly limited to the amounts actually paid, or whether the amounts billed by the providers - even if later discounted - were relevant evidence of damages; and (2) whether the difference between the amounts billed by the providers and the amounts actually paid was a benefit from a collateral source, subject to the collateral source rule. The Supreme Court concluded that the amounts billed by the providers were relevant evidence of the medical services’ reasonable value. Furthermore, the Court concluded the difference between the amounts billed and the amounts paid was a benefit to the injured party that was subject to the collateral source rule; as such, evidence of the amounts paid was excluded from the jury’s consideration but was subject to post-trial proceedings under AS 09.17.070 for possible reduction of the damages award. View "Weston v AKHappytime, LLC, d/b/a Alex Hotel & Suites" on Justia Law

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In May 2009 Jesse Collens, then 21 years old, was permanently injured in a bicycle accident that left him a C-1 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, and dependent on a ventilator to breathe. In December 2009 he contracted with Maxim Healthcare Services, a national healthcare corporation with a home healthcare division, to provide his nursing care. In late 2011 issues arose between Collens and Maxim over the company’s management of his care. These issues escalated, and in early March 2012, Alaina Adkins, Maxim’s Alaska office manager, met with Collens to discuss his main concerns with Maxim’s services. The following business day, Adkins emailed various members of Maxim’s legal and administrative staff about one of the issues Collens had raised. Internal concerns surfaced about the legal compliance of the staff working with Collens. In an email responding to the report, Maxim’s area vice president wrote, “We are in dangerous territory right now with the liability of this case and we are going to have to seriously consider discharge.” Collens’s care plan was subject to routine recertification every 60 days; Maxim’s Alaska Director of Clinical Services visited Collens’s house to complete the review necessary for this recertification, noting “discharge is not warranted.” Concurrent to the recertification, Adkins requested Maxim’s legal department provide her a draft discharge letter for Collens. The draft letter stated the discharge had been discussed with Collens’s physician and care coordinator and that they agreed with the discharge decision. But in fact neither approved the discharge. The draft letter also included a space for names of other entities that could provide the care needed by the patient. Adkins noted in an email to the legal department, “We already know that there are no providers in our area that provide this type of service.” The discharge letter she eventually delivered to Collens filled in the blank with four agency names. Adkins delivered and read aloud the discharge letter at Collens’s home on March 30. Collens sued Maxim and Adkins for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, unfair and deceptive acts and practices under Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA), and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). The superior court ruled for Collens on all his claims and entered a $20,379,727.96 judgment against Adkins and Maxim, which included attorney’s fees. Maxim and Adkins appealed, arguing that: (1) they were not liable under the UTPA; (2) the superior court erred in precluding their expert witnesses from testifying at trial; (3) the court’s damages award was excessive; and (4) the court’s attorney’s fee award was unreasonable. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the superior court’s attorney’s fee award was unreasonable, but on all other issues it affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc. v. Collens" on Justia Law

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This recount appeal arose out of the 2018 Alaska House of Representatives race for District 1. Following a recount the election was certified, with Kathryn Dodge receiving 2,662 votes and Barton LeBon receiving 2,663. Dodge filed this recount appeal pursuant to AS 15.20.510, arguing: (1) one ballot, excluded as “overvoted” because it contained markings in more than one oval, should have been counted for her; (2) two counted ballots should have been excluded because they had been cast by individuals who were not residents of the district; and (3) one ballot, excluded due to the voter’s registration in another district, should have been counted because the voter’s registration in the other district was inadvertent. LeBon challenged the same overvoted ballot as Dodge, but he argued it should have been included as a vote for him. LeBon also challenged five additional ballots. The Director maintained her original vote-counting decisions in the face of these challenges. At a hearing on December 20, 2018, a superior court issued a recommendation to uphold the Director of the Division of Elections’ vote-counting decisions. On January 4, 2019, the Alaska Supreme Court issued an order affirming the recount decision and indicated that this opinion would follow. View "LeBon v. Meyer" on Justia Law

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In these separate but consolidated appeals, the issue common to both cases presented to the Alaska Supreme Court for review centered on whether new federal regulations materially changed the qualifications required of an expert testifying in a child in need of aid (CINA) case involving children subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). To support the termination of parental rights, ICWA required the “testimony of qualified expert witnesses . . . that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child.” Under the new federal regulations, experts who formerly could be presumptively qualified, based on their ability to testify about prevailing cultural and social standards in the child’s tribe, for example, had to also be qualified to testify about the “causal relationship between the particular conditions in the home and the likelihood that continued custody of the child will result in serious emotional or physical damage to the particular child who is the subject of the child-custody proceeding.” The Supreme Court concluded the federal regulations had materially changed an expert’s qualifications, and in these two cases, the challenged expert witnesses failed to satisfy this higher standard imposed by controlling federal law. For this reason the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the orders terminating the parents’ parental rights and remanded for further proceedings. View "L.B. (Mother) v Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law