Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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In the case of Brett Lane v. the State of Alaska, Department of Family & Community Services, Office of Children’s Services, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the lower court's decision denying the Office of Children's Services's (OCS) post-trial motion for a new trial on liability. The court concluded that the weight of the evidence supported the jury's verdict on Lane's theories of retaliation. However, the court found an error in the jury instruction relating to noneconomic damages caused by a dangerous client, Wilson. As a result, the court vacated the damages judgment and remanded for a new trial solely on noneconomic damages. The court also remanded the matter back to the lower court for an evidentiary hearing on OCS's claim that the jury award duplicated workers’ compensation benefits that Lane received. The court held that OCS should be given the opportunity to prove that the jury award created an impermissible duplication of damages. View "State of Alaska v. Lane" on Justia Law

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In the State of Alaska, a woman, Lacie Chance, left her boyfriend, Jason Armstrong, in California and relocated to Alaska with their daughter. She filed for a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) against Armstrong in Alaska, alleging seven years of physical and mental abuse. The superior court issued temporary 20-day protective orders and a long-term protective order against Armstrong, who had never been to Alaska. Armstrong appealed, arguing that the court lacked personal or subject matter jurisdiction. While the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska agreed with the lower court that it had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case, it concluded that the superior court lacked the personal jurisdiction necessary to impose affirmative and long-term obligations on Armstrong, who had no contacts with Alaska. The court emphasized that due process requires either general or specific jurisdiction over a defendant. In this case, Armstrong had no contacts with Alaska, and therefore, the court did not have personal jurisdiction over him. The court concluded that the long-term DVPO could not stand because it imposed significant and potentially long-lasting restrictions and obligations on Armstrong. The DVPO was vacated. View "Armstrong v. Chance" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska reversed the Superior Court's decision and held that the Department of Corrections' policy change regarding the definition of "firm release date" for prisoners was a regulation that required compliance with the rulemaking procedures of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The Department of Corrections had changed its interpretation of "firm release date" twice. Initially, a prisoner's release date on discretionary parole was not considered a "firm release date." In 2016, the Department changed this interpretation and considered a discretionary parole release date as a "firm release date." However, in 2019, the Department reverted to its initial interpretation. The plaintiff, Trevor Stefano, a prisoner, argued that this change in policy violated the APA because it amounted to revising a regulation without going through the APA’s rulemaking process. The Supreme Court agreed with Stefano, noting that the Department's actions were a changed interpretation of existing regulation that had to be adopted through rulemaking. Because the Department did not follow the rulemaking procedure, the Court reversed the Superior Court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Stefano v. State of Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In this case in the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, a candidate who narrowly lost an election brought a case alleging that the Division of Elections had improperly allowed some voters to cast ballots without meeting constitutional and statutory residency requirements. The court upheld the election results in favor of the opposing candidate and dismissed the losing candidate's lawsuit. The winning candidate then moved for attorney’s fees and costs, asserting that certain claims made in the election contest were frivolous or made in bad faith. The court agreed and awarded the winning candidate full attorney’s fees and costs related to those claims. The losing candidate appealed, arguing that he was protected from an adverse attorney’s fees award as a constitutional claimant and that the court failed to follow proper procedure for imposing fees and costs as sanctions. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the unsuccessful candidate’s constitutional claims were not frivolous or made in bad faith and reversed the award of attorney’s fees and costs. However, the court ruled that the unsuccessful candidate is not exempt from sanctions for violating court rules after notice and an opportunity to be heard and remanded for further proceedings to determine whether sanctions could be awarded for violations of court rules. View "Pruitt v. State of Alaska, Division of Elections" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was asked to determine whether the question of a deceased worker's status as an employee or independent contractor under the Alaska Worker's Compensation Act should be determined by a jury or a judge. The lawsuit was initiated by the estate of Nicholson Tinker, a worker who was killed in a construction accident while working for Mark Welty, doing business as North Country Services. Welty had no workers' compensation coverage at the time of the accident. Tinker's estate argued that he was an employee and that under the Act, Welty was presumed negligent because he had no compensation coverage. Welty argued that Tinker was an independent contractor, hence the Act did not apply.The superior court decided that the question of employee status was an issue for the jury to decide. The estate appealed this decision, arguing that the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Benson v. City of Nenana determined that a judge, not a jury, should decide the issue of a worker's status under the Act.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska agreed with the estate, holding that the superior court must determine whether Tinker was an employee or independent contractor under the Act as a preliminary issue before trial. The Court reasoned that the applicability of the Act is a legal determination with factual underpinnings that the court should decide as a preliminary matter. The Court also noted that determining the employee status promptly is significant due to its potential impact on basic issues such as the type of action a party can bring or the burden of proof for negligence. Therefore, the Court reversed the superior court’s order that the jury decides the issue of employee status and remanded for further proceedings. View "Leona Seal, Personal Representative of the Estate of Nicholson J. Tinker v. Mark C. Welty D/B/A North Country Services" on Justia Law

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In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the petitioner, Eric McDonald, an employee of a subcontractor, suffered injuries during the renovation of a high school. He sued Architects Alaska, Inc. and BBFM Engineers, Inc., alleging that they negligently failed to exercise reasonable care in the design, supervision, implementation, and specifications of the demolition of the renovation project. Before trial, the parties’ attorneys discussed the possibility of a settlement, and the defendants moved to enforce a “walk-away” settlement they claimed had been reached through email correspondence. McDonald, unrepresented at this point, did not file a substantive response to the defendants’ motion. The superior court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the case.About a year later, McDonald moved for relief from judgment under Alaska Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), arguing that he had never given his attorney authority to settle the case. A different superior court judge granted the motion, finding that factual issues precluded summary judgment on whether a settlement agreement existed, that the earlier dismissal was erroneous as a law matter, and that extraordinary circumstances otherwise entitled McDonald to Rule 60(b) relief. The defendants petitioned for review, and the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska reversed the ruling on the ground that McDonald’s Rule 60(b) motion was not filed within a reasonable time. View "BBFM Engineers, Inc. v. McDonald" on Justia Law

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In Fairbanks, Alaska, a man, Timothy Teslow, cut down a grove of birch trees on a property that was up for sale by its owner, Wallace Cox. The property was subsequently bought by David and Rhetta Bragg. The Braggs sued Teslow for damages, claiming that he had trespassed on the property and cut down the trees without permission. However, midway through the proceedings, they decided not to oppose Teslow's motion for summary judgment, believing their claims were not viable. The Superior Court of the State of Alaska ruled in favor of Teslow and awarded him full attorney’s fees, finding that the Braggs' claims were frivolous and that they had filed the lawsuit with an improper purpose. The Braggs appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska held that one of the Braggs' claims was not frivolous and that the finding of an improper purpose was clearly wrong. The court vacated the award of full attorney’s fees and remanded the issue of fees for further consideration. However, the court affirmed the denial of the Braggs' motion for relief from the judgment under Alaska Civil Rule 60(b), stating that the incompetent advice of their attorney is not a ground for relief from judgment under this rule. View "Bragg v. Teslow" on Justia Law

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In this case, Veronica Louise Hudson and Daniel Lee Hudson, a married couple in Alaska, divorced. The major points of contention revolved around the division of marital property and the classification of a severance and bonus package received by Daniel from his former employer, BP. Veronica argued that the severance and bonus pay were marital property, while Daniel contended that they were his separate property. The trial court ruled that the severance and bonus pay were separate property, and divided the remaining marital property equally between the parties. Veronica also challenged the court's order allowing Daniel to make an equalization payment over five years rather than in a lump sum and the court's denial of her request for attorney fees.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska concluded that the lower court erred in classifying the severance and bonus pay without sufficient information, and in its findings related to economic misconduct and the financial condition of the parties. The court also held that the lower court abused its discretion in ordering a schedule of equalization payments over multiple years. The court remanded the case for further proceedings to determine the purpose of the severance and bonus pay, and whether a different division of property is warranted. The court also required the lower court to reconsider the terms of any equalization payment. The court affirmed the lower court's denial of attorney's fees. View "Hudson v. Hudson" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was tasked with determining whether a judgment against a self-represented litigant, Jon Buchholdt, was void due to improper service of process. Jeremy Nelson, Buchholdt's former client, had sued him for legal malpractice and won a judgment of $200,000, but Buchholdt argued that he was not properly served and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The main issue in this case was whether Buchholdt was properly served with the summons and complaint by certified, restricted mail sent to his law office, which was rerouted to his home and signed by his alleged agent, "Suz Miller." Buchholdt contended that he was not properly served as he never personally signed for the service, and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The court held that Buchholdt failed to meet his burden of demonstrating that the judgment was void. Despite his claims, Buchholdt did not provide any evidence to contradict Nelson's evidence of service or to show that Suz Miller was not authorized to receive service on his behalf. Additionally, Buchholdt had listed Nelson's lawsuit as a contingent liability when he filed for bankruptcy, indicating he had knowledge of the suit.Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of Buchholdt's motions to set aside the judgment and for reconsideration. The court did not find that the judgment was void due to a lack of personal jurisdiction resulting from improper service of process. View "Buchholdt v. Nelson" on Justia Law

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In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, a group of trade associations (Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc., Alaska Trucking Association, Inc., Alaska Miners Association, Inc., Associated General Contractors of Alaska, Alaska Chamber, and Alaska Support Industry Alliance) sued the State and a ballot initiative group "Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share" (Fair Share), seeking to invalidate the State’s approval of a ballot initiative petition. The litigation primarily revolved around the constitutionality of a statute limiting the compensation that could be paid for obtaining signatures on ballot initiative petitions. The superior court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional and dismissed the trade associations’ claims that a large number of petition signatures should be invalidated because the statutory compensation limits had been exceeded.Following this ruling, Fair Share moved for an attorney’s fees award against the trade associations, contending that it was a qualified prevailing constitutional claimant entitled to full reasonable attorney’s fees under AS 09.60.010, or at least an award of partial attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 82. The trade associations responded that Fair Share could not be a constitutional claimant because it was not a “plaintiff, counterclaimant, cross claimant, or third-party plaintiff.”The superior court concluded that Fair Share was a constitutional claimant because its claim was effectively a counterclaim. However, it also concluded that the Trade Associations did not have sufficient economic incentive to bring their claim, and thus were constitutional claimants protected from an award of full attorney’s fees under AS 09.60.010. The court nonetheless awarded Fair Share partial attorney’s fees under Rule 82.On appeal, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the superior court’s determination that the trade associations did not have a sufficient economic incentive to bring their claims. Thus, the trade associations are qualified, non-prevailing constitutional claimants and the Rule 82 attorney’s fees award must be vacated. View "Vote Yes for Alaska's Fair Share v. Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc." on Justia Law