Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Civil Procedure
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
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
In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Tonja P.
A woman who suffered from schizophrenia appealed court orders authorizing her involuntary commitment and administration of psychotropic medication. She argued the superior court erred by relying on a cursory report from the court visitor and by failing to make specific findings that involuntary medication was in her best interests. She also contended it was error to commit her to a psychiatric hospital instead of to a less restrictive facility. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s orders. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Tonja P." on Justia Law
Guilford v. Weidner Investment Services, Inc., et al.
A landlord tried to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent. The tenant counterclaimed under Alaska’s Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA), seeking damages for a variety of alleged harms: retaliatory eviction; failure to return her security deposit; intentional misrepresentation of certain fees; and personal injury and emotional distress caused by mold in the apartment, which the tenant alleged was a violation of the landlord’s duty under URLTA to maintain fit premises. The eviction was denied; the court entered summary judgment against the tenant’s damages claim for personal injury on the ground that the tenant failed to provide expert opinion evidence supporting the link between mold exposure and her health problems. After trial, a jury awarded the tenant modest damages for misrepresentation and for emotional distress caused by mold exposure. The jury found in the landlord’s favor on the retaliatory eviction and security deposit claims. The superior court awarded the tenant partial attorney’s fees, using a “blended analysis” that relied on both Alaska Civil Rule 82 and on URLTA’s provision for full reasonable fees and then discounting the award due to the tenant’s limited success. The tenant appealed the grant of summary judgment on her personal injury claim and the attorney’s fees calculation. The landlord cross-appealed, arguing the superior court erred in a number of its evidentiary decisions, by permitting the tenant to recover emotional distress damages for a breach of URLTA’s duty to maintain fit premises, and by awarding the tenant attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. After its review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s evidentiary rulings. It also affirmed its decision to permit recovery of emotional distress damages caused by violations of the duty to maintain fit premises. But the Court reversed summary judgment against the tenant’s personal injury claim. Medical records in which the tenant’s treating physician suggested that mold exposure may have been the cause of her health problems amount to sufficient expert medical opinion that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the tenant as the non-moving party, created a genuine issue of material fact that had to be resolved at trial. View "Guilford v. Weidner Investment Services, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
Nordlund v. Alaska Department of Corrections
Department of Corrections (DOC) officers charged a prisoner with conduct or language likely to interfere with the institution’s orderly administration and security. Following a hearing, a DOC hearing officer imposed a suspended sentence of 10 days’ punitive segregation. The prisoner appealed to the superior court, arguing that the charge was retaliatory and that he had been improperly denied the right to present in-person testimony at his hearing. The superior court rejected the prisoner’s arguments and found that DOC’s decision was supported by “some evidence,” reflecting the statutory standard of judicial review. On appeal, the prisoner argued his due process rights were violated by the hearing officer’s failure to allow in-person testimony and by DOC’s failure to include in the record on appeal a surveillance video viewed at the hearing. He also argued the superior court erred by applying the statutory “some evidence” standard of appellate review. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the prisoner did not show that he was prejudiced by the lack of in-person testimony at the hearing or the surveillance video’s omission from the record on appeal, and because the superior court properly applied the statutory standard of review, judgment was affirmed. View "Nordlund v. Alaska Department of Corrections" on Justia Law