Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Several Alaska Department of Corrections inmates challenged the DOC's policy to charge for local telephone calls, arguing the rates they and call recipients had to pay for calls violated their constitutional right to rehabilitation, their statutory right to reasonable telephone access, and DOC’s contractual obligations under a prior settlement and consent decree. In addition, one of the prisoners challenged DOC officers’ decision to deny him access to a computer programming book he ordered from outside the prison. He contended that DOC placed a content-specific restriction on the educational materials and publications prisoners were allowed, violating the Alaska Constitution’s free speech provisions as well as prisoners’ right to reformation. Each of these challenges reached the Alaska Supreme Court after inmates exhausted the administrative process from prison. Inmates then appealed to the superior court, which denied relief. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court record did not provide enough evidence for it to meaningfully determine the reasonableness of the rates charged inmates for local telephone calls; therefore the Court reversed denial of relief and remanded for further fact-finding by the trial court. The Court concluded that the facility's restrictions on programming-related books were rationally related to a legitimate interest, and because they did not infringe on the right to rehabilitation, it affirmed denial of a prisoner's motion to enforce his claimed right to a particular text about computer programming. View "Antenor v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Jason Barnebey was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. At the police station he was administered a breath test by a DataMaster testing instrument, which showed a result of .081 percent alcohol, above the .08 legal limit. Barnebey elected to obtain an independent chemical test, which showed a result of .073. Following an administrative hearing, a hearing officer relied on the DataMaster breath-test result to sustain the Department of Motor Vehicles’s revocation of the Barnebey's license pursuant to AS 28.15.165(c). Barnebey appealed, arguing, as he had at the administrative hearing, that it was error not to consider the DataMaster’s inherent margin of error in determining whether his test result was over the legal limit. The superior court affirmed the hearing officer’s decision and awarded attorney’s fees to the State; Barnebey appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court determined the hearing officer properly interpreted the governing law and did not violate due process in her consideration of the DataMaster’s margin of error. The Court affirmed the decision revoking the man’s license. However, the Court concluded it was error for the superior court to award attorney’s fees to the State without considering whether the man was entitled to protection as a constitutional litigant under AS 09.60.010(c)(2). The fee award was therefore vacated, and the matter remanded for further consideration of only that issue. View "Barnebey v. Alaska Department of Administration, Division of Motor Vehicles" on Justia Law

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Arthur A. appealed a 30-day involuntary commitment order entered after the superior court determined he was mentally ill, posed a risk of harm, and was gravely disabled. He contended on appeal that the court erred by refusing to allow him to represent himself at the commitment hearing. The Alaska Supreme Court held that a respondent in involuntary commitment proceedings has at least an implied statutory right to self-representation, although that right is not absolute. "If a respondent clearly and unequivocally invokes the self-representation right, the superior court must hold a preliminary hearing and consider factors outlined in McCracken v. Alaska, 518 P.2d 85 (Alaska 1974), to determine whether self-representation should be allowed." Because the respondent’s self-representation request in this case was denied without adherence to the McCracken framework, the Court concluded the 30-day commitment order had to be vacated. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Arthur A." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Supreme Court has held previously that, under some circumstances, a parent whose parental rights have been involuntarily terminated under Alaska’s child in need of aid (CINA) statutes could seek post-termination review and reinstatement of parental rights. A superior court may vacate a termination order if the child has not yet been adopted and the parent demonstrates, “by clear and convincing evidence, that reinstatement of parental rights is in the best interest of the child and that the person is rehabilitated and capable of providing the care and guidance that will serve the moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare of the child.” Dara S. was the biological mother of Paxton, born February 2011, Paxton was born in Alaska but lived with Dara’s sister and brother-in-law, Scarlet and Monty, in Oregon since being placed with them by OCS in April 2014. Dara visited Paxton in July 2014 and decided to stay in Oregon. Dara’s parental rights to her son had were ultimately terminated as a result of her mental health issues. She timely sought review and reinstatement of her parental rights, and an Alaskan superior court granted review and ultimately granted her reinstatement request. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and the child’s guardian ad litem (GAL) appealed the reinstatement decision, arguing both that post-termination reinstatement of parental rights after an involuntary termination was barred as a matter of law and that the mother had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that reinstatement was in the child’s best interests. The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the argument that reinstatement was barred as a matter of law, but remanded the case to the superior court for further elucidation of its best interests determination. The superior court held a post-remand evidentiary hearing and ultimately confirmed its best interests determination. OCS, joined by the GAL, appealed that determination, arguing that some of the court’s underlying factual findings, and therefore its ultimate best interests finding, were clearly erroneous, and that the reinstatement order therefore had to be vacated, leaving the parental rights termination in place. The Supreme Court determined the disputed underlying factual findings supporting the best interests determination either were not material or not clearly erroneous. Therefore, it concluded the superior court’s reinstatement decision should have been affirmed. View "Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services v. Dara S." on Justia Law

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Raymond Dapo was born in 1990. OCS took custody of him ten years later and, in April 2000, placed him in Taun Lucas’s foster home. Lucas and her husband David legally adopted Dapo in May 2002. According to Dapo, Lucas began sexually abusing him shortly thereafter; Lucas, however, alleged that she was sexually abused by Dapo, and Dapo, then 11 years old, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault. The charges were eventually dropped, and Dapo was returned to the custody of the State as a dependent child. When he was 24 years old (in 2015), Dapo filed a complaint against Lucas, alleging that she had sexually abused him while he was a minor. In September 2015, Lucas filed a third-party claim against OCS for apportionment of fault, contending that OCS “had a duty to protect” Dapo and “negligently failed to protect” him. The superior court granted OCS’s motion to dismiss the apportionment claim, holding that it was barred by the ten-year statute of repose, AS 09.10.055(a). Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the statute of repose applied to the apportionment claim and was not unconstitutional as applied. However, the Court determined there were issues of fact regarding the applicability of two exceptions to the statute of repose: claims for gross negligence and claims for breaches of fiduciary duty. Therefore the superior court’s order was reversed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Dapo v. Alaska, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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An attorney began representing two injured workers after both encountered difficulties representing themselves in their workers’ compensation claims against the same employer. Both claimants then successfully resolved their claims through mediation, with both receiving substantial settlements. The parties were unable to resolve the question of their attorney’s fees, so the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board held hearings on that issue. The Board limited the witnesses at the hearings and ultimately awarded significantly reduced attorney’s fees in both claims. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decisions. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission incorrectly interpreted Alaska case law about attorney’s fees, because the Board denied the claimants the opportunity to present witnesses, and because the amount of attorney’s fees awarded to both claimants was manifestly unreasonable, the Supreme Court reversed in part the Commission’s decisions and remanded for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law

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Danielle B., a 73-year-old woman who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, was involuntarily committed for 30 days. Her illness led to repeated hospitalizations and temporary improvements with the help of medication. But upon release she has deteriorated after stopping the medication. As a result she has had housing problems and incidents involving police due to her behavior, leading to more hospitalization. Since the 1980s she had been admitted to Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) 30 times. The last such admission she appealed, arguing the State failed to prove that there were no less restrictive alternatives than commitment. Because the court did not err by finding clear and convincing evidence that there was no less restrictive alternative, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the court’s order committing her for involuntary treatment. View "D.B. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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This case involved prisoner Richard DeRemer's pro se appeal of the superior court’s dismissal of his civil complaint against three Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) employees. DeRemer alleged numerous violations of his constitutional rights, and he requested declaratory relief and damages. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint addressing some, but not all, of DeRemer's claims. Specifically, the defendants did not address his First Amendment retaliation claim or request for declaratory relief. The court relied on this motion and dismissed the prisoner’s claims “for the reasons set forth in defendants’ motion,” failing to provide any independent analysis of the prisoner’s claims. Because the court, by adopting the defendants’ reasoning, failed to address all of the prisoner’s claims, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the court’s order with respect to the First Amendment retaliation claim and remanded for further proceedings. The Supreme Court affirmed the court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s other claims. View "DeRemer, III v. Turnbull" on Justia Law

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Luciano G. appealed a court order involuntarily committing him for mental health treatment. He argued the court erred in making two findings: (1) that as a result of his mental illness he posed a risk of harm to others; and (2) that there was no less restrictive alternative to committing him to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API). He contended his conduct did not meet the statutory criteria of “likely to cause serious harm” and that there was insufficient evidence presented that there was no less restrictive alternative for his treatment. Because the Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court’s findings were supported by clear and convincing evidence, and the superior court properly determined that the man’s conduct met the statutory criteria, it affirmed the commitment order. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Luciano G." on Justia Law

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A juvenile from a small village could not afford to travel to the site of his juvenile delinquency proceeding. His attorney with the Public Defender Agency (the Agency) filed a motion asking the superior court to require the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to pay the travel expenses for both the juvenile and one of his parents. The superior court denied the motion and required the Agency to pay the expenses. The court of appeals upheld the superior court’s decision, reasoning that the Agency’s authorizing statute could plausibly be interpreted to cover client travel expenses and that this reading was supported by administrative guidance in the form of two Attorney General opinions and a regulation governing reimbursements by the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA). The Alaska Supreme Court granted the Agency’s petition for hearing, asking the Agency and DJJ to address two questions: (1) whether the Agency has a statutory obligation to pay its clients’ travel expenses; and (2) whether DJJ has a statutory obligation to pay those expenses. The Supreme Court concluded neither entity’s authorizing statutes required the payment and therefore reversed the court of appeals. The Court did not address the question of how these necessary expenses were to be funded; the Court surmised that was an issue for the executive and legislative branches. View "Alaska Public Defender Agency v. Superior Court" on Justia Law