Articles Posted in Civil Rights

by
The City of Houston, Alaska fired its police captain shortly before disbanding its police department. The captain claimed he was terminated in bad faith in order to stop ongoing investigations into city leaders. He challenged: (1) the superior court’s refusal to allow his claim under the Alaska Whistleblower Act; (2) a jury instruction stating that termination for personality conflicts did not constitute bad faith; and (3) an award of attorney’s fees and costs. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the court’s refusal to allow his claim under the Whistleblower Act, its decision to give the personality conflict instruction, and its award of attorney’s fees and costs were not erroneous and therefore affirmed. View "McNally v. Thompson" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Sean Wright, a former inmate of the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) who was incarcerated at an out-of-state correctional facility under contract with DOC, filed a medical malpractice and 42 U.S.C. 1983 civil rights action against officials employed by the out-of-state correctional facility and by DOC. The civil rights claims alleged that the corrections officials were deliberately indifferent to Wright's medical needs. The superior court granted summary judgment dismissing the medical malpractice action as barred by the two-year statute of limitations. Subsequently the court granted summary judgment on the deliberate indifference claims against the inmate. In the course of the proceedings, Wright unsuccessfully sought to have the superior court judge removed for alleged bias. Wright appealed these decisions. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Wright v. Anding" on Justia Law

by
A student was dismissed from a Ph.D. program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks after several years of poor performance and negative feedback. She claimed that her advisors discriminated and retaliated against her, that she was dismissed in violation of due process, and that the University breached duties owed to her under an implied contract. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's decision to uphold the University's action because the student was dismissed based on her poor research performance and the dismissal was conducted under adequate procedures and within accepted academic norms. View "Horner-Neufeld v. University of Alaska Fairbanks" on Justia Law

by
The Anchorage Police Department identified Joshua Richardson as a suspect in a shoplifting incident. When the police went to Richardson’s home to make an arrest, Richardson hid in a crawlspace and allegedly incurred injuries from a police canine. The misdemeanor theft charges against Richardson were dismissed shortly after his arrest. About two years after these events, Richardson filed two civil suits against the Anchorage Police Department, various police officers, the State of Alaska, Best Buy (the store in which he was alleged to have shoplifted), and the Best Buy employee who reported the theft. In separate proceedings, one before Judge Catherine Easter and one before Judge Mark Rindner, the superior court dismissed both complaints as untimely under the two-year statute of limitations. Richardson appealed these dismissals. In the suit before Judge Easter, Richardson argued that the statute of limitations should have been tolled due to his alleged mental incompetency and separation from his legal documents during unrelated incarceration. The Supreme Court concluded there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to these issues, and affirmed the Superior Court as to this issue. In the suit before Judge Rindner, however, there was credible evidence that Richardson filed his complaint before the statute of limitations ran. This created a genuine issue of material fact. The Supreme Court therefore vacated the dismissal in that case and remanded for further proceedings to determine when Richardson commenced his suit. View "Richardson v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

by
Luis Rodriguez was a gay Hispanic man employed by Delta Airlines, Inc. In November 2010 Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, accusing Delta of race-based discrimination. Rodriguez alleged that Delta (1) "did not delete the position of a Caucasian coworker with less seniority," and (2) "recently brought another Caucasian employee with less seniority . . . back from layoff status." After an investigation, the Commission concluded that Rodriguez's racial discrimination allegations were not supported by substantial evidence, and the Commission dismissed the complaint without holding a hearing. The employee appealed to the superior court, and the superior court affirmed the Commission's conclusion that the employee's complaint was not supported by substantial evidence. The employee appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court agreed that the employee failed to present the Commission substantial evidence of race-based discrimination, it affirmed the superior court's decision affirming the Commission's dismissal. View "Rodriguez v. Alaska Commission for Human Rights" on Justia Law

by
Six Alaska prisoners jointly filed a pro se putative class-action complaint against various Department of Corrections officials. Their complaint listed 18 causes of action, many of which addressed changes in Department policy regarding inmate purchase and possession of gaming systems and restrictions on mature-rated video games. One of the prisoners moved for class certification and for appointment of counsel. The superior court denied the class action motion on the grounds that pro se plaintiffs could not represent a class, and denied the appointment of counsel. The Department then moved for dismissal of the prisoners’ complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The superior court granted this motion on the ground that all of the claims were class action claims that could not be pursued. Two of the plaintiffs, Jack Earl, Jr. and James Barber, each filed an appeal (which were consolidated for the purposes of this opinion). They argued that the superior court erred in denying the motion for class certification, denying the motion for appointment of counsel, and dismissing the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Upon review of their arguments on appeal, the Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in denying class certification and appointment of counsel, but reversed the dismissal of the action and remanded for further proceedings. View "Barber v. Schmidt" on Justia Law

by
The State Commission for Human Rights brought an action on behalf of an employee who alleged that her employer’s racist and insensitive remarks created a hostile work environment. The Commission ultimately found that the employee did not suffer a hostile work environment, but it denied the employer’s request for attorney’s fees. The employer appealed on the issue the fees, arguing that it was entitled to fees as the prevailing party and because it raised affirmative defenses under the Alaska and United States Constitutions. After review of the specific facts entered on the Commission's record, the Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the Commission’s denial of fees. View "Ace Delivery & Moving, Inc. v. Alaska State Commission for Human Rights" on Justia Law

by
Arthur Kinnan lived in a residence as part of a substance abuse treatment program operated by Sitka Counseling. Funding for that program ended, and Sitka Counseling informed Kinnan that he would be required to vacate. Kinnan filed suit against Sitka Counseling and two of its staff members, unsuccessfully alleging several torts based on the defendants’ conduct when removing him from the premises, violations of Alaska’s Landlord Tenant Act, and deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Kinnan argued on appeal to the Supreme Court that the superior court wrongfully denied a continuance to allow him to seek counsel, wrongfully excluded the testimony of a late-disclosed witness and two affidavits, and improperly facilitated questioning regarding Kinnan’s mental disability. The Supreme Court concluded that any error resulting from the exclusion of Kinnan’s witness was harmless and saw no abuse of discretion in the superior court’s denial of Kinnan’s continuance, its exclusion of the affidavits as hearsay, or its consideration of Kinnan’s mental disability. Furthermore, the Court also rejected Kinnan’s argument that the superior court’s adverse rulings created an appearance of judicial bias. View "Kinnan v. Sitka Counseling" on Justia Law

by
Paul Stavenjord, a Buddhist inmate, asked to receive a Kosher diet and to be permitted to purchase a prayer shawl. Prison officials at the Alaska Department of Corrections denied his requests. Stavenjord filed a complaint alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and various constitutional provisions. The superior court granted the Department's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Stavenjord had failed to demonstrate: (1) that a Kosher diet and prayer shawl were necessary for the practice of his religion; (2) that he was sincere in his requests for religious accommodation; and (3) that the Department's lack of accommodations substantially burdened the practice of his religion. Under Alaska's summary judgment standard, the initial burden falls on the moving party: the Department. Furthermore, religious necessity was not an element of RLUIPA. Because summary judgment was granted by placing the initial burden on the non-moving party and by focusing on Stavenjord's failure to make an evidentiary showing not required under RLUIPA, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Stavenjord v. Schmidt" on Justia Law

by
A public employee filed a complaint with the Commission for Human Rights in 2007 alleging employment discrimination and filed another complaint with the superior court in 2012. Upon learning of the 2012 complaint, the executive director dismissed the 2007 complaint, citing AS 18.80.112(b)(4). Alaska Statute 18.80.112(b)(4) gives the executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights discretion to dismiss a complaint of employment discrimination if the complainant initiates an action in another forum "based on the same facts." Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the executive director had a proper statutory basis for dismissal because the 2012 civil complaint was "based on the same facts" as those alleged in the 2007 complaint. View "Grundberg v. Alaska State Communication for Human Rights" on Justia Law