Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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The Lum family sued two police officers and the North Slope Borough for trespass and invasion of privacy after an allegedly unlawful entry into the Lums’ home. The superior court dismissed both claims on summary judgment, reasoning that the officers were protected by qualified immunity under state law because the Lums had not produced sufficient evidence that the officers acted in bad faith. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s decision because there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether they acted in bad faith. View "Lum v. Koles" on Justia Law

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Alaska inmate David Simmons refused to provide a DNA sample for Alaska’s DNA identification registration system pursuant to a statutory requirement that persons convicted of certain crimes provide a DNA sample for the system. Refusal to submit a sample constituted a felony; for refusing the sample, he was charged with an infraction in a prison disciplinary hearing and found guilty. He appealed to the superior court, which affirmed. Simmons appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the crimes for which he was found guilty and incarcerated occurred before the effective date of the DNA identification registration system, and the DNA sample requirement either was not retrospective or, if it was, violated the ex post facto clauses of the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions. A secondary issue raised by Simmons' appeal pertained to counsel in disciplinary proceedings. Because the inmate was charged with a disciplinary infraction constituting a felony, under Alaska case law he had the right to counsel in his disciplinary hearing. The Department of Corrections refused to provide him counsel for his hearing. The superior court ruled that although the denial of counsel violated the inmate’s constitutional rights, the violation did not prejudice his ability to have a fair hearing. Rejecting Simmons' contentions with respect to the sample-felony, and finding no other reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decisions. View "Simmons v. Alaska, Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The Commission for Human Rights is responsible for enforcing Alaska’s anti-discrimination laws. The Commission’s staff is authorized by regulation to use a variety of investigative methods. These include witness interviews, “inspection of documents and premises,” and “examination of written submissions of parties and witnesses.” The focus of this appeal was the Commission’s unwritten policy, followed for at least 27 years, barring third parties from investigative interviews with “certain limited exceptions.” As the Commission described its policy, third parties may be present if the interviewee is “the respondent named in the complaint, or is a member of the respondent’s ‘control group’ management, or has managerial responsibility.’ ” The Commission also allowed witnesses to be accompanied by their own attorneys and, if necessary, an interpreter or a guardian. The investigation at issue began when an employee filed two complaints against her employer, the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), in August 2014 and February 2015. The Commission opened an investigation headed by investigator Patricia Watts. Watts contacted Dori Anderson, the complainant’s supervisor, to schedule an interview. A question was raised over whether Greta Jones, a program manager for the complainant’s agency, was requested to attend Anderson’s interview. The Commission issued a subpoena to interview the complainant’s supervisor, who refused to be interviewed unless an employer representative was also present. On the Commission’s petition, the superior court issued an order to show cause why the supervisor should not be held in contempt. The supervisor moved to vacate the order and dismiss the contempt proceeding; the superior court granted the motion on the ground that the Commission lacked the legal authority to exclude third parties from its investigative interviews. The Commission appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the statutory requirement of a confidential investigation, with its specific limits on a respondent’s access to investigative materials, clearly authorized the Commission to exclude third parties from investigative interviews. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court’s order dismissing the Commission’s petition and remanded for further proceedings. View "Alaska State Commission for Human Rights v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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