Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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A mother and father appealed the termination of their parental rights after proceedings at the Families with Infants and Toddlers Court (FIT Court). They argued their rights were violated when the FIT Court’s “rigid, non-fact driven,” 12-month timeline governed the progression of the Child in Need of Aid (CINA) cases of their two children. After review of the FIT Court record, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded it was error to adhere to a preset timeline rather than making an individualized assessment of whether the parents had a reasonable time to remedy based on the facts of their children’s cases, as required by statute. Furthermore, the Court concluded the parents did not knowingly and voluntarily waive that statutory requirement. View "Edna L. v. Dept. of Health & Social Services (Office of Children's Services)" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A divorcing couple had a community property trust holding title to two rental properties: a fourplex and a mobile home park. The husband had owned these properties before marriage. The superior court divided the marital estate equally, awarding the rental properties to the husband and a large equalization payment to the wife. Both parties appealed. The husband argued the superior court erred when it found that a bank account in the names of the husband and the mobile home park was marital. The wife argued the court erred in its interpretation of the Alaska Community Property Act when it held that income and appreciation from the rental properties in the community property trust remained the husband’s separate property; she also argued the court clearly erred in some findings of fact and abused its discretion when it failed to invade the husband’s separate property in order to reach an equitable division. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in its interpretation of the relevant statutes, did not clearly err in its findings of fact, and did not abuse its discretion when dividing the marital estate. View "Philips v. Bremner Philips" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of a three-year-old child and placed him with non-relative foster parents. The child lived with the foster parents for over a year when OCS informed them of its intent to place the child with his grandmother. The superior court allowed the foster parents to intervene in child-in-need-of-aid proceedings (CINA) to contest the placement decision. After a hearing, the court stayed the placement, concluding OCS abused its discretion in deciding the move the child with his grandmother. OCS appealed, arguing the superior court erred in staying its decision. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion by permitting the foster parents to intervene. Furthermore, the Supreme Court determined the trial court's factual findings were not clearly erroneous, and the court did not err when it decided OCS abused its discretion in its placement decision. Judgment was therefore affirmed. View "Alaska Dept. Health & Soc. Serv, Ofc. of Child Serv. v. Zander & Kelly B. (Foster Parents)" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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In its initial custody decision, the superior court found that a father had a history of committing domestic violence, and therefore established benchmarks for him to meet before he could begin supervised visitation with his children. The father did not appeal that decision. He nonetheless sought to relitigate the domestic violence finding in subsequent proceedings, but the superior court ruled that relitigation of the issue was barred by collateral estoppel. Following an extended evidentiary hearing, the superior court found the father had met the benchmarks set by the earlier order and conditionally granted his request that he be allowed to begin supervised visitation. But the superior court also said that because of the “challenging” nature of the case it could not approve a visitation plan without more detail, such as the identity of individuals willing to act as counselors and visitation coordinators and how the parties would pay for their services. The father appealed the superior court’s order granting in part his motion for supervised visitation, including its application of collateral estoppel to the earlier finding of domestic violence. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court did not abuse its discretion or otherwise err, it affirmed its visitation order. View "Robert A. v. Tatiana D." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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The superior court awarded the husband the marital home and ordered him to make a corresponding equalization payment to the wife. About a year later the husband sought relief from judgment, arguing that newly discovered evidence showed the court had mis-valued the home. The court denied the requested relief and the husband appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the court’s decision. View "Schindler v. Schindler" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Angela and Kim Thiele married in February 2009 and separated in January 2016. Angela filed for divorce in February 2016. Kim received a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree in 1980. After working as an employee in another doctor’s practice, he established his own professional corporation in 2001; he worked as an independent contractor at other practices for the next ten years. During this time his business had few fixed assets because the doctors that employed him covered most of the overhead of running the medical practice. Kim’s business received 30% of the revenue he brought in from seeing patients, which Kim deposited into the corporation’s bank account. Business expenses were paid out of the corporate bank account, as was Kim’s salary. In 2011 Kim decided to open his own practice rather than continue to work as an independent contractor. He obtained a business license and hired an office manager to help him with the transition. At about the same time Angela contributed $15,000 of her own funds to the marital estate. She helped Kim decorate the office, and she participated in discussions with Kim about taking over another doctor’s practice or starting his own practice. Angela also worked as a receptionist and administrative assistant, answering the phone, greeting patients, and performing other administrative tasks as needed. The primary dispute in the couple's divorce centered on the classification of Kim's practice as separate or marital property. The superior court determined that the practice had neither transmuted nor actively appreciated during marriage and therefore was not marital property. The court also declined to award Angela attorney’s fees or reimbursement for the cost of an expert witness. Angela appealed the court’s determination that the medical practice was not marital property and its refusal to award attorney’s fees or costs. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court on both issues. View "Thiele v. Thiele" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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The superior court found that a father had a history of committing domestic violence, and it therefore established benchmarks for him to meet before he could begin supervised visitation with his children. The father did not appeal that decision. He nonetheless sought to relitigate the domestic violence finding in subsequent proceedings, but the superior court ruled that relitigation of the issue was barred by collateral estoppel. Following an extended evidentiary hearing, the superior court found that the father had met the benchmarks set by the earlier order and conditionally granted his request that he be allowed to begin supervised visitation. But the superior court also said that because of the “challenging” nature of the case it could not approve a visitation plan without more detail, such as the identity of individuals willing to act as counselors and visitation coordinators and how the parties would pay for their services. The father appealed the superior court’s order granting in part his motion for supervised visitation, including its application of collateral estoppel to the earlier finding of domestic violence. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court did not abuse its broad discretion or otherwise err in this custody case, it affirmed the visitation order. View "Robert A. v. Tatiana D." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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An Alaska Native teenage minor affiliated with the Native Village of Kotzebue (Tribe) was taken into custody by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and placed at a residential treatment facility in Utah. She requested a placement review hearing after being injured by a facility staff member. At the time of the hearing, the minor’s mother wanted to regain custody. At the hearing the superior court had to make removal findings under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), as well as findings authorizing continued placement in a residential treatment facility under Alaska law. At the hearing, the minor’s Utah therapist testified as a mental health professional. The minor, as well as her parents and the Tribe, objected to the witness being qualified as an ICWA expert, but the superior court allowed it. The minor argued the superior court erred in determining that the witness was qualified as an expert for the purposes of ICWA. Because the superior court correctly determined that knowledge of the Indian child’s tribe was unnecessary in this situation when it relied on the expert’s testimony for its ICWA findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of April S." on Justia Law

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Edna K. appealed a child custody modification which declined to find a change of circumstance even though both parties sought to modify their joint custody agreement. Edna and Jeb S. never married but had one child together, G.S., in February 2012. The two had a “rocky” relationship and they separated permanently two and a half years after their son’s birth. Edna filed a complaint for primary physical custody with shared legal custody in October 2014. A private custody investigator met with the parties several times from June through August 2016. The investigator noted that the parties proposed nearly identical custodial arrangements. Rather than attempt to “substantiate or invalidate” the allegations of domestic violence raised by the parties, the custody investigator’s report stated that “50/50 custody . . . is what this investigator tried to reach.” The report briefly summarized Jeb’s criminal record and past reports of domestic violence, including a 2005 conviction for sexual abuse of a minor. The report contained only a half-page discussion on domestic violence, noting that although Jeb was the subject of a number of restraining orders, Edna’s 2015 motion stated that no domestic violence existed. The custody investigator also minimized the severity of Jeb’s conviction for sexual abuse of a minor because Jeb later obtained custody of the son born out of that relationship, so the investigator reasoned that “the court [did] not deem him a risk to his own children.” The report recommended shared legal custody and varying degrees of shared physical custody, depending on Jeb’s work schedule and location. With respect to the custody order at issue here, the superior court ruled that Edna was collaterally estopped from presenting evidence of Jeb’s history of domestic violence because the issue had been “adequately addressed” in the parties’ stipulated custody agreement. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s application of collateral estoppel was legal error and reversed the court’s application of collateral estoppel, vacated the court’s findings on changed circumstances, and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on issues of domestic violence. View "Edna K. v. Jeb S." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A mother appealed a final order modifying custody of her three children, arguing the modification was to punish her and was not based on the best interests of the children. She claimed the superior court clearly erred in finding that she misrepresented information to third parties, including her son’s medical providers. She additionally argued she was denied due process because the superior court did not give her expert the opportunity to defend his methodology once the court determined that his psychological evaluation was outside the scope of its expectations. And she asserted the superior court erred in assigning no weight to her expert’s evaluation in making its credibility determinations. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court did not find the modification was made to publish the mother. The Court found the superior court based its underlying findings on the children's best interests, and the court did not clearly err in finding mother misrepresented information ot third parties. The Supreme Court also concluded mother was provided a meaningful opportunity to be heard; it was within the superior court’s discretion to decide how much weight to assign the psychological evaluations in making its credibility determinations. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s modification order. View "Burns v. Burns" on Justia Law