Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Health Law
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Seth Lookhart, a dentist, was convicted of numerous crimes related to a fraudulent scheme that endangered his patients' health and safety. The scheme involved unnecessary sedation of patients to fraudulently bill Alaska’s Medicaid program, overcharging it by more than $1.6 million. Lookhart also stole $412,500 from a business partner. His reckless sedation practices nearly resulted in the loss of two patients' lives. He was arrested in April 2017 and convicted on 46 charges in January 2020, leading to a sentence of 20 years in prison with eight years suspended.Following Lookhart's convictions, the Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing sought to revoke his dental license. Lookhart agreed to the facts of the accusation but argued that revocation was not an appropriate sanction. The administrative law judge (ALJ) disagreed, stating that Lookhart's misconduct was more severe than any prior case and that revocation was the clear and obvious sanction. The Board of Dental Examiners adopted the ALJ's decision.Lookhart appealed to the superior court, arguing that the Board's decision was inconsistent with its prior decisions. The court disagreed, stating that the Board had wide discretion to determine appropriate sanctions and that no prior case was comparable to Lookhart's. The court affirmed the Board's decision. Lookhart then appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska.The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision. It held that the Board of Dental Examiners did not abuse its discretion by revoking Lookhart's license. The court found that none of the Board's prior licensing cases involved misconduct of the scope and severity in this case, so there was no applicable precedent to limit the Board's exercise of its discretion. View "Lookhart v. State of Alaska, Board of Dental Examiners" on Justia Law

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A teacher, who was involved in a car accident caused by a third party, sustained serious injuries. The teacher was covered under his employer’s self-insured healthcare plan, which stipulates that the employer has a right of reimbursement for medical expenses if a covered person receives a separate settlement. The employer paid for the teacher’s medical expenses and the teacher also received $500,000 in settlements from two separate insurers. The teacher requested that the employer waive its right to reimbursement twice, but the employer never agreed. Two years after the teacher notified the employer of his insurance settlements, the employer requested reimbursement and later sued him for breach of contract.The Superior Court of the State of Alaska granted summary judgment to the employer on the issue of whether the teacher breached the contract to reimburse the employer. The employer then moved for summary judgment on the amount of damages, providing an affidavit from its Plan Administrator and a claims ledger. The teacher opposed the motion, providing his own affidavit and a self-created spreadsheet in support of his argument that some of the medical costs paid by the employer were not associated with the accident. The court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on contract damages.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment order regarding breach of contract, but held that the teacher raised a genuine dispute of material fact regarding damages. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s summary judgment order regarding contract damages. View "Fischer v. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District" on Justia Law

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A pilot, who was injured in an airplane crash in 1985, sought medical benefits for a 2016 spinal surgery and subsequent treatment, as well as for diabetes treatment related to his spinal treatment. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied his claim, concluding that the 1985 injury was not a substantial factor in the pilot’s spinal problems. The Board also excluded the testimony of the pilot’s biomechanics expert due to non-compliance with Board regulations. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision, finding substantial evidence in the record to support the Board’s decision and that the Board had not abused its discretion in its procedural rulings.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the Commission’s decision. The court found that substantial evidence supported the Board's decision that the 1985 injury was not a substantial factor in the pilot's spinal problems. The court also found that the Board did not abuse its discretion by excluding the testimony of the pilot's biomechanics expert due to non-compliance with Board regulations. The court further held that the Board did not have an obligation to secure the testimony of a particular witness, and that the pilot's failure to secure a witness's testimony did not create an obligation for the Board to do so. View "Jespersen v. Tri-City Air and Alaska Insurance Guaranty Company" on Justia Law

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The case involves a man, Dominic N., who was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment. Dominic N. has a history of being charged with sexual abuse of a minor and has been deemed incompetent to stand trial multiple times. He has been diagnosed with numerous mental health and behavioral conditions, including major depressive disorder, selective mutism, and borderline intellectual functioning. In 2021, he was again charged with sexual abuse of a minor and found mentally incompetent to stand trial. While at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) for competency restoration, he was diagnosed with additional disorders, including antisocial personality disorder.The Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, held a competency hearing and found Dominic mentally incompetent. The court ordered his commitment to API for further evaluation and restoration. The State petitioned for an order authorizing Dominic’s evaluation to determine whether he was mentally ill and likely to cause harm to others. The court granted the petition, and API staff filed a petition for 30-day civil commitment. After a hearing, the court found that Dominic was mentally ill and likely to cause harm to others, and ordered his commitment to API for 30 days.Dominic appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, arguing that the State failed to prove that he was mentally ill as defined by statute and that his diagnoses were the type of intellectual and developmental disabilities excluded from the definition. The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order, concluding that there was clear and convincing evidence that Dominic suffered from mental illness that is more than his excluded disabilities. The court found that Dominic’s impulse control disorder and pedophilic disorder were distinct from his intellectual and developmental disabilities, satisfying the statutory definition of mental illness. View "In re Hospitalization of Dominic N." on Justia Law

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In a case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the court was asked to determine the deadline for filing a claim against a decedent’s estate for reimbursement for Medicaid services provided to the decedent while alive. The probate code of Alaska provides that for claims arising “before the death of the decedent,” the creditor must file within four months after the estate's representative first published notice to creditors. For claims arising “at or after the death of the decedent,” the creditor must file within four months after the claim arose. The court held that Medicaid estate recovery claims arise before death and therefore must be filed within four months after notice to creditors. The court reasoned that although the state may not pursue these claims until after the Medicaid beneficiary has died, these claims arise when Medicaid services are provided, not when the claims become enforceable. The court's decision was based on the interpretation of the probate code, the underlying legislative purpose of the Medicaid estate recovery statute, and the weight of precedent from other jurisdictions. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Fe Perez Abad" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska ruled that the extended pre-evaluation detentions of two individuals, Abigail B. and Jethro S., violated their substantive due process rights. Both individuals were detained at local hospitals after suffering psychiatric emergencies. Court orders authorized immediate transportation of each individual to an available bed at an evaluation facility for further examination. However, due to a lack of available beds, neither individual was immediately transported, resulting in prolonged detentions. Abigail B. was detained for 13 days before transportation for evaluation, while Jethro S. was detained for 17 days. Both individuals appealed the detention orders, arguing that their prolonged detentions violated their substantive due process rights. The court agreed, citing a recent decision (In re Hospitalization of Mabel B.) that stated pre-evaluation detentions must bear a reasonable relation to the purpose of facilitating immediate transportation for evaluation. The court concluded that the nature and duration of Abigail's and Jethro's detentions were not reasonably related to their purpose, thereby violating their substantive due process rights. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Abigail B." on Justia Law

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In this case, a man identified as Sergio F. was taken into emergency custody after his religious delusions led him to walk naked along a road during the winter. Following this incident, the Superior Court of the State of Alaska ordered his evaluation at a treatment facility, and subsequently involuntarily committed him for up to 30 days of treatment. A subsequent petition led to the superior court ordering a 90-day involuntary commitment to the treatment facility, as it found that the man was gravely disabled and needed additional treatment.On appeal, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska vacated the superior court’s 90-day commitment order. It agreed with the man's argument that there was insufficient evidence to show he was gravely disabled and that the court failed to determine whether his commitment to the treatment facility was the least restrictive alternative for his treatment. The Supreme Court emphasized that less restrictive alternatives to hospitalization must be considered before ordering involuntary commitment and that it was the state’s burden to show that those alternatives do not exist or are not feasible. The Supreme Court found that this did not happen in this case, as neither the parties nor the court engaged in the specific inquiry required to address the petition’s allegations that less restrictive alternatives were considered and rejected by the treatment facility. Therefore, the Supreme Court vacated the 90-day commitment order. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Sergio F." on Justia Law

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In the State of Alaska, a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder stopped taking his medication, experienced a manic episode, and was hospitalized as a result. The hospital staff petitioned for him to be involuntarily committed for 30 days, which the superior court granted. The man appealed, arguing against the court's decision that he was likely to cause harm to others, was gravely disabled, and that there was no less restrictive alternative to involuntary commitment. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska held that the man's rights were violated because there was a feasible, less restrictive alternative to the involuntary commitment. The court also ruled that even if the suggested outpatient treatment proposal was not feasible, the State had failed to meet its burden of proving that no less restrictive alternative existed, as it did not consider any other treatment options beyond the man's proposal. The commitment order was vacated on these grounds. View "In the Matter of the Necessity of the Hospitalization of Declan P." on Justia Law

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A woman who suffered from schizophrenia appealed court orders authorizing her involuntary commitment and administration of psychotropic medication. She argued the superior court erred by relying on a cursory report from the court visitor and by failing to make specific findings that involuntary medication was in her best interests. She also contended it was error to commit her to a psychiatric hospital instead of to a less restrictive facility. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s orders. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Tonja P." 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