Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
by
An oyster farmer closed his farm after dozens of people became sick from eating his oysters. He sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation, alleging that the agency negligently informed him that the site of his farm was suitable for shellfish farming. The superior court granted summary judgment for the agency, concluding that the farmer’s misrepresentation claim was barred by state sovereign immunity. The farmer argued on appeal that the agency’s sovereign immunity defense was inapplicable because his complaint alleged a claim of negligence, not negligent misrepresentation. After review, the Supreme Court found the allegations in the farmer’s complaint supported only a negligent misrepresentation claim. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court's order granting summary judgment to the agency. View "Miller v. Dept. of Environmental Conservation" on Justia Law

by
An oyster farmer closed his farm after dozens of people became sick from eating his oysters. He sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation, alleging that the agency negligently informed him that the site of his farm was suitable for shellfish farming. The superior court granted summary judgment for the agency, concluding that the farmer’s misrepresentation claim was barred by state sovereign immunity. The farmer argued on appeal that the agency’s sovereign immunity defense was inapplicable because his complaint alleged a claim of negligence, not negligent misrepresentation. After review, the Supreme Court found the allegations in the farmer’s complaint supported only a negligent misrepresentation claim. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court's order granting summary judgment to the agency. View "Miller v. Dept. of Environmental Conservation" on Justia Law

by
Lake and Peninsula Borough voters passed an initiative prohibiting large-scale mining activities that had a "significant adverse impact" on anadromous waters within the Borough. Pebble Limited Partnership and Alaska (first in separate suits, later consolidated) brought suit against the Borough claiming that the initiative was preempted by state law. Two of the initiative sponsors intervened to support the initiative. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of Pebble and the State and enjoined the Borough from enforcing the initiative. The sponsors appealed, arguing that the dispute was unripe and that the superior court's preemption analysis was erroneous. But because at least the State has articulated a concrete harm stemming from the initiative's mere enactment, the Supreme Court found the case ripe for adjudication. And because the initiative purported to give the Borough veto power over mining projects on state lands within its borders, it seriously impeded the implementation of the Alaska Land Act, which granted the Department of Natural Resources "charge of all matters affecting exploration, development, and mining" of state resources. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision in favor of Pebble and the State. View "Jacko v. Alaska" on Justia Law

by
At issue in this case were land and water use permits allowing intensive mineral exploration on State land. Specifically, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had to give public notice before issuing the permits. Because the Alaska Constitution required public notice when interests in land were transferred, the answer to this question depended on whether the permits conveyed an interest in land. After a trial, the superior court held that notice was not required because the permits were nominally and functionally revocable and therefore did not transfer an interest in land. After its review, the Supreme Court concluded that the land use permits were not functionally revocable, conveyed an interest in land and consequently should have been preceded by public notice. As such, the Court reversed the superior court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Aulukestai v. Dept. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

by
The Alaska Board of Game has established two different systems of subsistence hunting for moose and caribou in Alaska’s Copper Basin region: (1) community hunts for groups following a hunting pattern similar to the one traditionally practiced by members of the Ahtna Tene Nene’ community; and (2) individual hunts. A private outdoors group, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund, argued that this regulatory framework violated the equal access and equal protection clauses of the Alaska Constitution by establishing a preference for a certain user group. The Fund also argued that the regulations were not authorized by the governing statutes, that they conflicted with other regulations, and that notice of important regulatory changes was not properly given to the public. The Supreme Court concluded that the Board’s factual findings supported a constitutionally valid distinction between patterns of subsistence use, and because the Board’s regulations do not otherwise violate the law, the Court affirmed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment to the State, upholding the statute and the Board regulations against the Fund’s legal challenge. View "Alaska Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund v. Alaska" on Justia Law

by
This appeal stemmed from the issuance of a permit by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Environmental Health to the Alaska Railroad Corporation for the use of herbicides to control vegetation along a railroad right-of-way. Two public interest organizations, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and Alaska Survival, contended that the Department’s issuance of the permit violated due process and the public notice requirement of AS 46.03.320; that the Department abused its discretion in accepting the permit application as complete and in denying standing and intervenor status to a third organization, Cook Inletkeeper; and that ACAT and Alaska Survival should not have been ordered to pay the costs of preparing the administrative record on appeal. The Department and the Railroad cross-appealed on the issue of attorney’s fees, contesting the superior court’s conclusion that ACAT and Alaska Survival were exempt from fees under AS 09.60.010(c) as constitutional litigants. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court concluded that the challenges to the permit were moot due to its expiration and changes in the governing regulatory scheme. The Court affirmed the agency’s decisions regarding costs; the cross-appeals on attorney’s fees were withdrawn by agreement.View "Alaska Community Action on Toxics v. Hartig" on Justia Law

by
In May 2011, plaintiffs, six Alaskan children acting through their guardians, filed suit against the State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, seeking declaratory and equitable relief. The plaintiffs contended that the State breached "its public trust obligations [under] [a]rticle VIII of the Alaska Constitution" by failing "to protect the atmosphere from the effects of climate change and secure a future for Plaintiffs and Alaska's children." The minors argued that the superior court erred when it dismissed their complaint on grounds that their claims were not justiciable, specifically, that the claims involved political questions best answered by other branches of state government. The Supreme Court concluded the claims for declaratory relief did not present political questions, and affirmed their dismissal, because in the absence of justiciable claims for specific relief, a declaratory judgment could not settle the parties' controversy or otherwise provide them with clear guidance about the consequences of their future conduct. View "Kanuk v. Alaska, Dept. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

by
Denali Citizens Council challenged the Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) finding that issuing a license to Usibelli Coal Mine for gas exploration in the Healy Basin was in the best interests of the state on two grounds: (1) DNR failed to take a "hard look" at the economic feasibility of excluding certain residential areas and wildlife habitat from the license; and (2) DNR's treatment of environmental mitigation measures in the best interest finding was arbitrary and capricious. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's order upholding DNR's decision to issue the gas exploration license to Usibelli because the Court concluded that DNR did not act arbitrarily in developing and publishing its best interest finding. View "Denali Citizens Council v. Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

by
In 2006, Exxon Mobil Corporation and Exxon Shipping Company settled with two seafood processors, Nautilus Marine Enterprises and Cook Inlet Processing. The parties disputed whether the Settlement Agreement required interest to be compounded annually, or whether the federal District Court was free to award simple or compound interest at its discretion. Exxon filed an action in the Alaska Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment. The superior court found that the parties did not intend that prejudgment interest had to be compounded annually, but rather that they intended to reserve this issue for the District Court to decide. Because the superior court’s interpretation of the Settlement Agreement was not clearly erroneous, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Nautilus Marine Enterprises, Inc. v. Exxon Mobil Corporation" on Justia Law

by
In 2009 the Department of Natural Resources issued two decisions, one removing the classification of certain lands as wildlife habitat and the other allowing for the conveyance of these lands to the Denali Borough for further development. A wildlife biologist and others submitted comments challenging the Department's actions; the biologist's comments and requests for reconsideration were denied and he filed an appeal in the superior court. While the appeal was pending, the wildlife biologist died in a plane crash and his sister, the personal representative of his estate, filed a motion to substitute an individual and an organization as appellants in this case. The court allowed for substitution of the personal representative, but prohibited the substitution of third parties; after the personal representative declined to personally continue the appeal, the superior court dismissed the case. The personal representative appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the superior court correctly articulated the proper test for substitution on appeal, but because it did not acknowledge the comments that the proposed appellant submitted during agency proceedings, the Court remanded the case for the court to consider whether these comments indicated the proposed appellant was entitled to prosecute in the review proceeding below, thereby making her a proper party for substitution. The Court affirmed the superior court's conclusion that the personal representative could not transfer or assign her right to appeal. View "Licht v. Irwin" on Justia Law