Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative 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

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The grandmother of an Indian child was appointed as the child’s guardian. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of the child after the grandmother admitted using methamphetamine and the child tested positive for the drug. After working with the grandmother to address her drug use and other issues, OCS petitioned to terminate the grandmother’s guardianship. Following a hearing, the superior court found that termination of the guardianship was in the child’s best interests and removed the grandmother as guardian. The grandmother appealed, arguing that her removal violated the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and that termination of the guardianship was not in the child’s best interests. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s removal of the grandmother as guardian. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceedings of: Baron W." on Justia Law

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Stephan “Craig” Mitchell suffered a work-related back injury in 1995. Since that time he had continuing back pain and received numerous medical interventions to try to treat the pain, including several surgeries. This appeal from the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission raised two issues: (1) whether the employer rebutted the presumption that the worker was permanently and totally disabled between 2004 and 2017 due to a back injury; and (2) whether the worker is entitled to compensation for a back surgery obtained without prior approval. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because the employer in this case failed to produce evidence of jobs that could accommodate the worker’s limitations, the employer failed to rebut the presumption that he was disabled. And because the surgery did not yield long­ term pain relief or functional improvement and because it entailed using a medical device in a way that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had specifically warned was not established as safe or effective, it was not an abuse of discretion to deny reimbursement. View "Mitchell v. United Parcel Service, et al." on Justia Law

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This case concerned the effect of the Alaska Legislature’s failure to exercise its confirmation power during the disruptions in regular government activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature relied on a preexisting statute and a 2020 modification of it to assert that its failure to act is the same as a denial of confirmation for all those appointees, with the consequence that they could not continue to serve as recess appointments. The governor argued that his appointees remained in office and continued to serve until the legislature voted on their confirmation, one way or the other, in joint session. The superior court granted summary judgment to the legislature, and the governor appealed. In April 2021, the Alaska Supreme Court considered the appeal on an expedited basis and reversed the superior court’s judgment in a brief order, concluding that the laws defining legislative inaction as tantamount to rejection violated article III, sections 25 and 26 of the Alaska Constitution, which required that the legislature consider a governor’s appointees in joint session. This opinion explained the Court’s reasoning. View "State of Alaska, Office of the Governor Mike Dunleavy, in an official capacity v. The Alaska Legislative Council, on behalf of the Alaska State Legislature" on Justia Law

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In Alaska, a child was presumed to be at substantial risk of sexual abuse (and therefore in need of aid) if the parent knowingly leaves the child with a person convicted of or under investigation for a sex offense against a minor. After an adjudication hearing, a superior court found a child to be at substantial risk of sexual abuse based on evidence that she was left with her mother’s boyfriend, who had been indicted for sexual abuse of a minor. The mother appealed, arguing that the superior court erred by not acknowledging that an indictment was weaker proof than a conviction and by not making findings about the likelihood that the conduct underlying the indictment actually occurred. Because the statute did not require the superior court to draw such distinctions or make such findings, and because the findings the court did make are not clearly erroneous, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed its ruling that the child was in need of aid. View "Cynthia W. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law