Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Education Law
Patterson v. Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District
An elementary school nurse who unsuccessfully attempted to save the life of a choking child sought workers’ compensation benefits for mental health problems she attributed to the incident. She argued that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to exposure to the child’s bodily fluids and resulting risk of disease and to the mental stress of the incident. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied her claims, concluding that her exposure to bodily fluids was not a sufficient physical injury to trigger a presumption of compensability and that the mental stress of the incident was not sufficiently extraordinary or unusual to merit compensation. The Board was most persuaded by the opinion of the employer’s medical expert that the nurse’s mental health problems were the result of a pre-existing mental health condition and were not caused by the incident. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found: (1) the Board failed to recognize the link between exposure to bodily fluids and mental distress over the risk of serious disease, which under Alaska precedent was enough to establish a presumption that the mental distress is compensable; and (2) the Board failed to consider the particular details of the child’s death and the nurse’s involvement when it concluded as a general matter that the stress of responding to a choking incident at school was not sufficiently extraordinary to merit compensation for mental injury. However, because the Board found in the alternative that the incident was not the cause of the nurse’s mental health problems, and because both the Commission and the Alaska Supreme Court had to respect the Board’s credibility determinations and the weight it gave conflicting evidence, the denial of benefits was affirmed. View "Patterson v. Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District" on Justia Law
Short, et al. v. Alaska Office of Management & Budget
The Alaska Legislature created and funded the Higher Education Investment Fund (HEIF) to provide annual grants and scholarships to students pursuing post-secondary education in Alaska. The HEIF later was identified as potentially eligible for a sweep of its unappropriated funds. After the Legislature failed in 2021 to garner a supermajority vote required to prevent the sweep, a group of students (the Students) sued the Governor in his official capacity, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Department of Administration (collectively the Executive Branch), alleging that the HEIF was not sweepable. The superior court agreed with the Executive Branch, and the Students appealed. Because a previous case interpreting the constitutional provision governing the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR) controlled, the Alaska Supreme Court declined to reject that precedent, and affirmed the superior court's determination that the HEIF was sweepable. View "Short, et al. v. Alaska Office of Management & Budget" on Justia Law
Dunleavy, et al. v. Alaska Legislative Council, et al.
The Alaska Legislature passed a bill in 2018 that appropriated money for public education spending for both FY2019, and FY2020. The second appropriation had a 2019 effective date. Governor Mike Dunleavy took office in December 2018, and disputed the constitutionality of the second year’s appropriation — and the general practice known as forward funding — asserting that it violated the annual appropriations model established by the Alaska Constitution. The Alaska Legislative Council, acting on behalf of the legislature, sued the governor, seeking a declaratory judgment that the governor violated his constitutional duties by failing to execute the appropriations and an injunction requiring him to do so. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the superior court decided that the appropriations were consistent with the legislature’s duty to fund public education, that they did not violate any specific constitutional provision, and that the governor’s refusal to disburse funds pursuant to the appropriations violated his duty to faithfully execute the laws. The court awarded attorney’s fees to the Legislative Council and the advocacy group as prevailing parties. The governor appeals the court’s grant of summary judgment and the award of attorney’s fees to the advocacy group. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court erred in its holding, and because neither the Legislative Council nor the advocacy group was prevailing party, the superior court’s attorney’s fees awards were vacated. View "Dunleavy, et al. v. Alaska Legislative Council, et al." on Justia Law
North Slope Borough v. Alaska Dept. of Education & Early Devel.
For years, a municipality issued, and sought reimbursement for, construction bonds that did not satisfy the equal payments requirement of Alaska's school debt reimbursement program, and the Department of Education and Early Development reimbursed the municipality. But when the municipality, after a several year absence, sought reimbursement for additional bonds that did not comply with the equal payments requirement, the Department denied the reimbursement. The municipality sought administrative review, and the Department’s commissioner upheld the decision. The municipality then appealed to the superior court and requested a trial de novo. The superior court denied the request for a trial de novo and affirmed the Department’s decision. The municipality then appealed both the Department’s and superior court’s decisions. Because neither the Department nor the superior court erred, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed their decisions. View "North Slope Borough v. Alaska Dept. of Education & Early Devel." on Justia Law
Horner-Neufeld v. University of Alaska Fairbanks
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
Richards v. University of Alaska
After a two-day hearing, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) dismissed Qwynten Richards from her Ph.D. program for failing to respond to feedback from her professors. An Appeals Committee affirmed Richards’s dismissal from the program because it concluded that there were sufficient negative reviews from her professors to support dismissal, and that she had failed to satisfactorily complete a “remediation” assignment given to her after the faculty found she plagiarized parts of a paper. Richards appealed to the superior court. The superior court affirmed, holding that UAF was reasonable in characterizing her dismissal as academic, that it substantially complied with its procedures, and that Richards received due process. It also awarded UAF 10% of its claimed attorney’s fees. Richards appealed to the Supreme Court. But finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Richards v. University of Alaska" on Justia Law
Alaska v. Ketchikan Gateway Borough
Article VII, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution required the state legislature to “establish and maintain a system of public schools” open to all children in the state. To fulfill this mandate, the legislature defined three types of school districts according to where the district is located: city school districts, borough school districts, and regional education attendance areas. “[E]ach organized borough is a borough school district”; a borough must “establish, maintain, and operate a system of public schools on an areawide basis.” Local school boards managed and controlled these school districts under authority delegated by AS 14.12.020. The statute required local borough and city governments to raise money “from local sources to maintain and operate” their local schools. The superior court held that this required local contribution was an unconstitutional dedication of a “state tax or license.” But the minutes of the constitutional convention and the historical context of those proceedings suggested that the delegates intended that local communities and the State would share responsibility for their local schools. Those proceedings also indicated that the delegates did not intend for state-local cooperative programs like the school funding formula to be included in the term “state tax or license.” These factors distinguished this case from previous cases where the Alaska Supreme Court found that state funding mechanisms violated the dedicated funds clause. The Court therefore held that the existing funding formula did not violate the constitution, and reversed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment holding that the funding formula was unconstitutional. View "Alaska v. Ketchikan Gateway Borough" on Justia Law
Barton v. North Slope Borough School District
In 2007, Plaintiff Helen Barton was injured while watching a high school football game in Barrow when a player ran out of bounds during a play and collided with her, breaking her leg. Plaintiff sued the North Slope Borough School District, alleging in part that the football field had not been designed or built with a proper "run-off" area along the sidelines and that spectators had improperly been allowed to stand in the run-off area during the game. Plaintiff retained expert landscape architect Juliet Vong who proposed to testify that she used a particular manual in designing sports fields "to help ensure the appropriate dimensions and design criteria are met for a given sport and level of play." The School District filed a motion in limine to exclude Vong's testimony because it did not provide an admissible expert opinion. The superior court agreed with the District and excluded Vong's report and testimony. At a jury trial in August 2010, the District was found not negligent. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the superior court should not have excluded Vong's testimony and that doing so was prejudicial to Plaintiff's case. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that although it was error to exclude Vong’s testimony, the error was harmless. View "Barton v. North Slope Borough School District" on Justia Law
Madeline P. v. Anchorage School District
Parents "Madeline P." and "Rex P." challenged a school district's actions regarding their child's educational program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A hearing officer found an IDEA violation but awarded less compensatory education services for the child than the parents requested. On appeal, the superior court affirmed the IDEA violation finding and the compensatory education award. The parents appealed, arguing that more compensatory education services should have been awarded; the school district cross-appealed, arguing that no compensatory education services should have been awarded. The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's findings regarding the school district's violation of the IDEA's procedural and substantive requirements and the compensatory education award. View "Madeline P. v. Anchorage School District" on Justia Law
J.P. v. Anchorage Sch. Dist.
Parents requested that the Anchorage School District evaluate their child for eligibility for special education services. While awaiting the results of the eligibility assessment, the parents arranged for private tutoring. The school district did not assess the child’s eligibility within the statutorily-required time, and the parents requested a due process hearing. They also arranged for their child to be privately evaluated to determine whether he was eligible for special education services. The school district subsequently completed its evaluation and determined the child to be ineligible for services. At the due process hearing, the parents alleged that the school district committed procedural violations under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including impermissibly delaying the evaluation. They sought reimbursement for the cost of their child’s private evaluation and tutoring. An independent hearing officer presided over the due process hearing and ultimately agreed with the district that the child was ineligible for services. The hearing officer ordered the school district to pay the cost of the private eligibility assessment and to partially pay the cost of the tutoring. The superior court upheld the award of the private eligibility assessment, but reversed the award of the private tutoring cost. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the school district argued that the parents should not be reimbursed for the evaluation or the tutoring; the parents argued they are entitled to full reimbursement for both expenses. The central question the Court addressed was: where a child is ultimately determined to be ineligible for special education services, does the IDEA provide relief for procedural violations that occur during the process of evaluating the child’s eligibility for services? The Court affirmed the superior court’s decision, upholding the independent hearing officer’s award of the private assessment cost, but reversing the hearing officer’s award of the private tutoring expenses. View "J.P. v. Anchorage Sch. Dist." on Justia Law