Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Appellant Raymond Dapo filed suit against his adoptive mother for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred 13 years earlier. He then agreed to release the adoptive mother from liability in exchange for her filing a third-party equitable apportionment claim against the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and assigning the claim to him. OCS challenged the validity of this assignment. The superior court agreed with OCS that the assignment of the adoptive mother’s apportionment claim was void; it invalidated the assignment, dismissed the claim with prejudice, and awarded OCS attorney’s fees. Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because a defendant prosecuting a third-party equitable apportionment claim possessed nothing in the claim itself that could be assigned, such claims are not assignable, and the Court affirmed the superior court’s invalidation of the assignment in this case. But the Supreme Court also concluded that it was error to dismiss the apportionment claim with prejudice; the Court thus vacated the order of dismissal and remanded for the court to provide the adoptive mother a reasonable time to decide whether to pursue the claim herself. View "Dapo v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs" on Justia Law

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An Alaska citizen filed an application to recall a member of the Anchorage Assembly, alleging that the assembly member had committed misconduct in office by participating in an indoor gathering of more than 15 people in violation of an executive order. The municipal clerk rejected the application after concluding that the alleged conduct did not constitute misconduct in office. The superior court reversed the clerk’s denial of the application. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Jones v. Biggs" on Justia Law

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A construction company filed an administrative appeal of a final agency decision that a renovation project on a State-leased office building fell under a wage statute for public construction projects. During enforcement proceedings an administrative law judge (ALJ) found that the project parties had entered into a sham contract in an attempt to evade the statute’s coverage. The State agency charged with enforcing the wage statute adopted the ALJ’s findings verbatim as its final agency decision. The construction company appealed; acting as an intermediate court of appeals, the superior court affirmed the final agency decision. The construction company then appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. Finding no reversible error in the superior court's judgment affirming the agency decision, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Alborn Construction, Inc. v. Alaska Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development" on Justia Law

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The parties to this appeal disputed the sequence for applying the provisions when calculating compensation for injured employees; another provision applied a cost-of-living ratio only to out-of-state recipients. Richard Roberge injured his shoulder in May 2014 while working for ASRC Construction Holding Company; he continued working with accommodations until the job ended in November. Roberge then returned to his Idaho residence. ASRC paid him $834.85 weekly in temporary total disability compensation through mid-August 2015, calculated by adjusting the maximum weekly compensation rate by the prevailing cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) percentage for his residence. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded We conclude the Act required first applying the cost-of-living ratio and then applying the maximum rate. View "Roberge v. ASRC Construction Holding Company, et al." on Justia Law

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Ramsey Barton sued the City of Valdez after she was severely injured by falling from a tire swing overhanging a cliff in an undeveloped area of a city park. The swing was not built by the City, and Barton alleged the City was negligent in failing to remove it. The superior court assumed on summary judgment that the City had imputed knowledge of the swing, but because there was no evidence the City had a policy to inspect or remove hazards from undeveloped areas of the park, the City was entitled to discretionary function immunity. The court therefore dismissed Barton’s lawsuit against the City. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding that there were "no conceivable policy reasons for declining to remove the unauthorized swing — a human-made hazard that was known, easily accessible, and simple to remove." The Supreme Court found that the failure to remove it was not protected by discretionary function immunity. View "Barton v. City of Valdez" on Justia Law

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The State redesigned the dental insurance plan offered to public retirees in 2014, narrowing coverage but also decreasing premiums paid by retirees. The Retired Public Employees of Alaska challenged the redesign. After a bench trial the superior court concluded that the new plan unconstitutionally diminished retirees’ accrued benefits. The State appealed, arguing that the superior court erred by determining the dental plan was a constitutionally protected “accrued benefit” and by refusing to consider premium rates for retirees as relevant to the diminishment analysis. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the State on the second point only: "The Alaska Constitution does protect public retirees’ option to purchase dental insurance as an accrued benefit, but both coverage for retirees and price to retirees influence the value of this option." The Court therefore vacated and remanded for the superior court to reevaluate the plan changes and incorporate premium pricing into its analysis. View "Tshibaka v. Retired Public Employees of Alaska, Inc." on Justia Law

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A man with severe mental illness stabbed his parents during a psychotic episode and was subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital. He appealed that commitment order. Before the commitment hearing, he stopped taking prescribed medications, leading hospital staff to petition for permission to administer medication involuntarily. The court granted the medication petition as well as a revised petition requesting a higher dose. He also appealed the order authorizing involuntary administration of medication. Finding the superior court did not err in its finding there was no less restrictive alternative to confinement, or that the court did not err petitioner lacked capacity to give or withhold consent to psychotropic medication, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed both orders. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Mark V." on Justia Law

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This matter arose from four Child in Need of Aid (CINA) cases. In each, the superior court appointed a guardian ad litem for the child through the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA), and in each case Brenda Finley, working under contract with OPA, appeared as the GAL. Pursuant to CINA Rule 11(e), Finley disclosed to the parties that she was a foster parent in another CINA case. She stated that she did not believe that her role as a foster parent “will affect her ability to be [impartial] in this specific case, or in other cases.” A parent in each case moved for an evidentiary hearing “regarding whether Ms. Finley should be disqualified as a guardian ad litem.” Arguing that Finley’s role as a foster parent might create a conflict of interest due to her relationship with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) as both a foster parent and a GAL, the parents sought additional details to determine whether a conflict existed, suggesting a hearing would allow them to elicit information regarding Finley’s past, present, and possible future tenure as a foster parent, the status of the cases in which she served as a foster parent, her financial arrangements with OCS, and her relationship with OCS workers. Both OCS and OPA filed qualified oppositions to the parents’ request for a hearing, arguing: that categorical disqualification of foster parents from serving as GALs was overbroad; the court should provide clarity on what framework should govern the potential conflict; and that a low bar for disqualification would fail to recognize “the difficulty of keeping positions in child welfare staffed by qualified individuals, ideally with ties to the community . . . .” The Alaska Supreme Court held that the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct applied to determine whether the GAL has a disqualifying conflict of interest and that the superior court must permit limited discovery to ascertain the underlying facts for determining whether a disqualifying conflict exists. View "C.L. v. Office of Public Advocacy" on Justia Law

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A minor in the custody of the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was brought to a hospital for mental health treatment. A hospital social worker then petitioned the superior court to have the minor involuntarily hospitalized at a psychiatric facility for a mental health evaluation. The court held a brief ex parte telephonic inquiry at which it took the social worker’s sworn testimony. The court concluded that the minor was a danger to herself and granted the petition. Under the statute governing involuntary commitments, the court was required to hold an evidentiary hearing within 72 hours if the psychiatric facility intended to continue providing treatment beyond that time. Before any hearing, however, OCS informed the court that it consented to the minor’s 30-day commitment for treatment; it contended that its consent made the 30-day commitment “voluntary” and, under the statute governing parental admissions, no hearing was required. The court eventually held an evidentiary hearing nearly 30 days after the minor’s initial hospitalization for evaluation. The court decided that the standards for a 30-day commitment were met because there was clear and convincing evidence that the minor had a mental illness, that she posed a risk of harm to herself, and that there were no less restrictive means of treatment available. The court also concluded that OCS had the statutory authority to admit a child in its care under the parental admissions statute. The first 30 days of the minor’s commitment were therefore considered voluntary, and her continued hospitalization would be considered under the involuntary commitment framework only after those 30 days expired. The court further determined that, because the 30-day limit under the parental admission statute was separate from the 30-day limit before a jury trial was required under the involuntary commitment statute, the minor could be held for an additional 30 days — 60 days total — before there was any need for a trial. The minor appealed, arguing the superior court violated her due process rights by not allowing her to be heard at the initial inquiry, when the petitioner testified under oath, and by treating her initial 30-day commitment as voluntary. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the minor’s hospitalization for evaluation complied with due process; a hearing was not required at the ex parte review stage, and a judge’s decision to hold a brief inquiry with the petitioner did not give the respondent a right to be heard. But the Supreme Court further concluded that it was error to treat the initial 30-day commitment as voluntary, because OCS was not a parent or guardian statutorily authorized to use the voluntary parental admission framework. Because the 30-day commitment should have been considered involuntary, any further hospitalization could not be ordered absent a full hearing or jury trial. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court order characterizing the first 30-day commitment as voluntary and authorizing an additional 30 days of commitment. View "In the Matter of the Hospitalization of April S." on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a mother’s parental rights to her daughter after a termination trial. The mother appealed, and the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that on the facts of this case, the mother preserved her evidentiary appeal point. The Court rejected the Office of Children’s Services’s (OCS) assertion that the mother waived her evidentiary objection by not repeatedly raising it to every question asked during the relevant testimony. The Court also concluded that, because the superior court did not explain its evidentiary ruling at any point during the relevant testimony or in its termination decision, it could not determine: (1) whether the court allowed some or all of the hearsay testimony for limited purposes; (2) how the court used the hearsay evidence to reach its findings; or (3) whether the court erred or abused its discretion by allowing and relying on the hearsay testimony. The case was therefore remanded to the superior court for a full explanation of its evidentiary ruling, how the ruling related to the hearsay testimony, and how the hearsay testimony related to the trial court’s findings. View "M.B. (Mother) v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law