Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Ge Vue was an asset-protection worker at the Walmart in Eagle River, Alaska in 2016. On February 3, he was shot in the back and face with a pellet gun when he and another asset-protection worker tried to stop three juveniles from taking a cart full of merchandise they had not paid for. No pellets penetrated his back, but one pellet penetrated the skin near his right eye and came to rest in his right orbit, or eye socket, near his optic nerve. He underwent surgery for the injury, and received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. His employer contended that he was not disabled by the psychological injury and, after an ophthalmologist retained by the employer questioned specific pain-related medical care, the employer controverted that treatment. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board granted the worker’s claim for medical care, found the employer had not unfairly or frivolously controverted benefits, and denied the worker’s request for disability during periods of time when his eye doctors said he had the physical capacity to perform asset-protection work. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Vue appealed,, making arguments related to disability and the standard for finding an unfair or frivolous controversion. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, and remanded with instructions to remand to the Board for calculation of benefits and penalty owed to the worker. View "Vue v. Walmart Associates, Inc." on Justia Law

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Russell Baker was hired by Federal Express Corporation (FedEx) as a pilot in June 2006. Employment agreements between FedEx and its pilots are established via collective bargaining with a union, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA). During the relevant period of Baker’s employment, ALPA’s agreement with FedEx offered pilots on foreign duty assignments options to finance either relocation housing or their commute. Pilots based in Hong Kong could elect an “enhanced” relocation package instead of commuting. Pilots choosing that package had 18 months to complete their relocation, but were obligated to reimburse FedEx if they did not actually relocate. FedEx retained the right to request documentation establishing that relocation had actually occurred, including “verification of the permanent relocation of a pilot’s spouse, and/or dependent children under the age of 18 years, if applicable.” Baker would be fired by FedEx after he collected a relocation allowance based on misleading statements that his spouse had relocated with him. While his employment termination proceedings were ongoing, he filed complaints with the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights, contending FedEx engaged in marital status discrimination by requiring married pilots to relocate their spouses as a condition of the relocation allowance, and FedEx retaliated against him for filing the first complaint. The Commission concluded that there was substantial evidence of illegal discrimination, but exercised its statutory discretion to dismiss the complaint instead of bringing an enforcement action. The Commission also dismissed his second complaint, concluding that there was not substantial evidence of retaliation. Baker appealed the Commission’s decisions to the superior court, which affirmed the decisions. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission did not abuse its substantial discretion by declining to prosecute the discrimination complaint, and did not err by concluding that the employer did not retaliate against the pilot after he filed his discrimination complaint. View "Baker v. Alaska Commission for Human Rights (Federal Express Corp.)" on Justia Law

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Anticipating a shortfall of revenue from previously enacted tax incentives, the 30th Alaska State Legislature attempted to offset future fiscal unpredictability by authorizing a discounted buyback of tax credits financed by bonds without pledging the “full faith and credit” of the State. Without a vote of the people, the legislature created a public corporation capable of borrowing up to $1 billion through the issuance of subject-to-appropriation bonds to purchase outstanding oil and gas exploration tax credits, with bondholders to be reimbursed solely at the discretion of future legislatures through appropriations to the new public corporation. A taxpayer filed suit, alleging, inter alia, that the legislature violated the Alaska Constitution’s state debt limitation. The superior court granted the State’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the legislation did not create “debt” for purposes of the constitutional limitation. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding that this financing scheme, even if unforeseeable in the mid-twentieth century, was the kind of constitutional “debt” that the framers sought to prohibit under article IX, section 8 of the Alaska Constitution. The Supreme Court reversed the superior court's decision granting the State's motion to dismiss, and affirmed the superior court’s decision rejecting the State’s arguments under section 11. View "Forrer v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Mick and Cecilia Manns made unsuccessful applications for preference rights to purchase certain Alaska State land. The Mannses argued they were entitled to a preference right under AS 38.05.035(f) based on their business use of the land beginning in the mid­ 1970s. But this statute required the Mannses to establish business use beginning at least five years prior to State selection; in this case, the State selection occurred in 1972. The statute also required the Mannses to show some income reliance on the land for the five years preceding their application, but the Mannses did not submit any such evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision affirming the decision of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to deny the Mannses’ application. View "Manns v. Alaska, Dept. of Nat. Rec., Div. of Mining, Land & Water" on Justia Law

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A man appealed superior court orders authorizing his hospitalization for evaluation, his 30-day commitment, and the involuntary administration of psychotropic medication. He argued the superior court’s failure to conduct a screening investigation was an error that required vacation of the evaluation order and the commitment and medication orders that followed it. He also specifically challenged the commitment order, claiming that the court erred by relying on facts not in evidence and by finding clear and convincing evidence that he was gravely disabled and that commitment was the least restrictive alternative. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded: (1) that failing to perform a screening investigation was error, but the error was harmless because the court made findings supported by clear and convincing evidence when ordering a 30-day commitment; (2) it was also harmless error to rely to any extent on facts not in evidence because there was sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that the respondent was gravely disabled; (3) the superior court did not err when it found by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent was gravely disabled and that commitment was the least restrictive alternative, or when it granted the petition for involuntary hospitalization; and (4) the superior court did not err by finding that medication was in the respondent’s best interests and that there was no less intrusive alternative, or by granting the petition for its involuntary administration. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Rabi R." on Justia Law

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In October 2017 the Alaska Trust Land Office (Land Office) issued a best interest decision in favor of selling five lots of land owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust to Louis and Stacy Oliva. The Olivas' neighbors, Jeffrey and Bonnie West, submitted late comments opposing the sale. The Land Office accepted those comments as a request for reconsideration, but it ultimately denied the Wests' request and proceeded with the sale. The Wests appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the best interest decision. On appeal, the Wests argued the sale was not in the Trust’s best interest, the Land Office violated a number of statutes and regulations, and the agency’s public notice regulation was invalid. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Wests' first argument lacked merit, and the remaining issues were waived for various reasons. The Court therefore affirmed the best interest decision. View "West v. Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority" on Justia 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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Tiffany O., a woman in her 60s, developed epilepsy early in childhood and suffered from regular seizures. She was also diagnosed with intellectual disability, and was described as "unable to engage in a meaningful conversation." In 2007, Tiffany's daughter Rachel petitioned for the appointment of a guardian for Tiffany. In March 2008, the superior court appointed the Office of Public Advocacy to serve as Tiffany’s public guardian. After a period of working well together, the relationship between Rachel and the public guardian soured. Rachel twice petitioned for review of the guardianship. In June 2011 Rachel was appointed as Tiffany’s guardian. The daughter relied on faith-based medicine to care for her mother, electing to, in one instance, pray over her mother after she became nonresponsive instead of calling emergency services. The superior court ultimately removed the daughter as guardian, finding that her behavior and “intractable belief system” caused her to deprive her mother of appropriate services and care. The Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it removed the daughter as her mother’s guardian. The Court also concluded that removing the daughter as guardian did not violate the Alaska Constitution’s free exercise clause because the State possessed a compelling interest in preventing harm to the mother. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceedings of Tiffany O." on Justia Law

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Landowners Ronald and Annette Alleva settled a lawsuit against a the Municipality of Anchorage and organizations that operated a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen; the settlement agreement recited that the landowners accepted a sum of money in exchange for a release of present and future trespass and nuisance claims involving the organizations’ clients. Six years later the landowners filed this lawsuit asserting similar claims. Their complaint referred to the prior settlement, but they did not file the settlement agreement with the complaint. The defendants moved to dismiss, relying on the settlement agreement. The landowners argued that because the settlement agreement had not been filed with the complaint, it could not be used as a basis for dismissal under Alaska Civil Rule 12(b)(6). The superior court rejected the landowners’ argument, granted the motion to dismiss, and ruled in the alternative that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment. The landowners appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that the settlement agreement was properly considered on the motion to dismiss because it was addressed in the complaint and its authenticity was not questioned. The Supreme Court also agreed that the settlement barred the landowners’ current lawsuit. View "Alleva v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

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Virgil Adams, a self-described journeyman carpenter, worked sporadically from 2009 to 2011 at a house located on Snow Bear Drive in Anchorage. He suffered a “T12 burst fracture with incomplete spinal cord injury” when he fell from the house’s roof in 2011, and became permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fall. He filed a claim with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, and, because the property owner for whom he worked had no workers’ compensation insurance, the Workers’ Compensation Guaranty Fund was joined to the workers’ compensation case. The Fund disputed whether the property owner for whom the carpenter worked was an “employer” as defined in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act and contended the worker’s intoxication caused the accident. The Board decided the injury was compensable based on two findings: (1) the property owner was engaged in a real-estate-related “business or industry” and (2) the worker’s alleged intoxication did not proximately cause the accident. The Fund appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission; the Commission reversed because, in its view, the Board applied an incorrect legal test in determining whether the property owner was an employer and no evidence in the record could support a determination that the property owner was engaged in a “business or industry” at the time of the injury. The Commission decided the intoxication issue was not ripe for review. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, finding the Board did not legally err and substantial evidence supported its employment-status decision. The matter was remanded to the Commission for consideration of the intoxication issue. View "Adams v. Alaska Workers Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund" on Justia Law