Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a newborn child due to concerns about the parents’ drug use and the father’s history of sexual abuse. The mother later voluntarily relinquished her parental rights, and after a trial, the superior court terminated the father’s rights. The father appealed the termination order, arguing: (1) the order improperly relied on drug-treatment records that were not admitted at trial; and (2) in proposing a new process to govern a parent’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, he established a prima facie case of ineffective assistance and the Alaska Supreme Court should remand the case to the superior court for an evidentiary hearing. The Supreme Court was not convinced by either argument, and affirmed the termination order because relying on the unadmitted drug-treatment records was harmless error and because the father did not show he received ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the Court took the opportunity to clarify its approach to ineffective assistance claims in child in need of aid (CINA) cases. View "Penn P. Jr. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc.Srvs" on Justia Law

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A special election was scheduled to fill Alaska’s vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Due to time constraints the election was conducted entirely by mail. The Division of Elections created an online ballot delivery system to accommodate visually impaired Alaskans, but the system required voters to print out their ballots and return them by mail or fax or at a drop-off location. An organization advocating for the rights of visually impaired Alaskans sued the Division, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would prevent the Division from certifying the election results until visually impaired voters were able to participate independently. The superior court granted the preliminary injunction. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court erred in its analysis of the tests for granting a preliminary injunction, it vacated the order on June 11, 2022. This opinion explained the Supreme Court's reasoning. View "Alaska Division of Elections v. Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, ex rel. B.L." on Justia Law

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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

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Department of Corrections (DOC) officers charged a prisoner with conduct or language likely to interfere with the institution’s orderly administration and security. Following a hearing, a DOC hearing officer imposed a suspended sentence of 10 days’ punitive segregation. The prisoner appealed to the superior court, arguing that the charge was retaliatory and that he had been improperly denied the right to present in-person testimony at his hearing. The superior court rejected the prisoner’s arguments and found that DOC’s decision was supported by “some evidence,” reflecting the statutory standard of judicial review. On appeal, the prisoner argued his due process rights were violated by the hearing officer’s failure to allow in-person testimony and by DOC’s failure to include in the record on appeal a surveillance video viewed at the hearing. He also argued the superior court erred by applying the statutory “some evidence” standard of appellate review. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the prisoner did not show that he was prejudiced by the lack of in-person testimony at the hearing or the surveillance video’s omission from the record on appeal, and because the superior court properly applied the statutory standard of review, judgment was affirmed. View "Nordlund v. Alaska Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In 2020 Alaska voters approved, by a slim margin, a ballot initiative that made sweeping changes to Alaska’s system of elections. The changes included replacing the system of political party primary elections with a nonpartisan primary election and adopting ranked-choice voting for the general election. A coalition of politically active voters and a political party filed suit, arguing that these changes violated the Alaska Constitution. The superior court ruled otherwise. The Alaska Supreme Court considered the appeal on an expedited basis and affirmed the superior court’s judgment in a brief order. The Court concluded the challengers did not carry their burden to show that the Alaska Constitution prohibited the election system Alaska voters have chosen. The Court published its opinion to explain its reasoning. View "Kohlhaas, et al. v.Alaska, Division of Elections, et al." on Justia Law

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Two tribes claimed to be a child’s tribe for purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA): The Native Village of Wales claimed the child was a tribal member; the Native Village of Chignik Lagoon claims that the child is “eligible for tribal membership.” After the superior court terminated the biological parents’ parental rights, Wales moved to transfer subsequent proceedings, including potential adoption, to its tribal court. Chignik Lagoon intervened in the child in need of aid (CINA) case, arguing that the child was not a member of Wales under Wales’s constitution and that transfer of further proceedings to the Wales tribal court was not authorized under ICWA. The superior court found that the child was a member of Wales and that Wales was the child’s tribe for ICWA purposes, and therefore granted the transfer of jurisdiction. Chignik Lagoon appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s determination that the child was a member of Wales and that Wales was appropriately designated as the child’s tribe for ICWA purposes. The Supreme Court also concluded that, given that ruling, Chignik Lagoon lacked standing to challenge the transfer of proceedings to the Wales tribal court. View "Native Village of Chignik Lagoon v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that a carpenter who admitted using alcohol and cocaine before his injury had a compensable disability because it determined the accident would have happened regardless of his drug and alcohol use. The Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund, which was responsible for payment if an employer defaults, appealed, arguing that the employee’s intoxication barred compensation. The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision because substantial evidence supported it. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska Workers' Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund v. Adams, et al." on Justia Law

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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

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Attorney David Graham represented Sandra Rusch and Brenda Dockter in separate proceedings against the same employer before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. Rusch injured her back working for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) in Klawock. Dockter sustained a knee injury at work for SEARHC in Sitka. After litigation, the parties successfully settled most issues with the assistance of a Board mediator. The parties were unable to resolve the amount of attorney’s fees SEARHC would pay for Graham’s work, so that issue proceeded to hearings, which the Board heard jointly. The Board awarded far less in attorney’s fees than the claimants sought. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decisions, resolving most but not all issues in favor of the claimants, and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. The Supreme Court instructed the Board to consider the factors from the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct to determine reasonable fees. After the Supreme Court awarded attorney’s fees to the claimants for their appeal to the Court, the claimants sought fees for their work in the first appeal to the Commission, asking the Commission to adopt the modified lodestar approach to awarding fees. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act authorized the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission to award enhanced attorney’s fees to successful claimants for their attorneys’ work in a Commission appeal. The Commission decided the Act did not. But because the Commission’s decision rested on an incorrect interpretation of the Act and because the Commission failed to consider the claimants’ evidence and arguments in favor of enhancement, the Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Commission for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law

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The State of Alaska claimed the right under Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477) to clear land and permit the use of boat launches, camping sites, and day use sites within an alleged 100-foot right of way centered on a road on land belonging to an Alaska Native corporation. The Native corporation sued, arguing that its prior aboriginal title prevented the federal government from conveying a right of way to the State or, alternatively, if the right of way existed, that construction of boat launches, camping sites, and day use sites exceeded its scope. After years of litigation and motion practice the superior court issued two partial summary judgment orders. It held as a matter of law that any preexisting aboriginal title did not disturb the State’s right of way over the land. It also concluded as a matter of law that the right of way was limited to ingress and egress. Because the superior court did not err when it granted the State’s motion regarding aboriginal title, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed that grant of partial summary judgment. But because the scope of a particular RS 2477 right of way was a question of fact, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's conclusion as a matter of law that the State’s right of way was limited to ingress and egress. View "Ahtna, Inc. v. Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, et al." on Justia Law