Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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After initially disputing that a corrections officer was permanently and totally disabled from injuries suffered at work, the State conceded his disability status. The parties did not enter into a written settlement or stipulation because they disagreed about the amount of attorney’s fees the State should pay the officer’s attorney. After a hearing the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board awarded attorney’s fees under AS 23.30.145(a) in two parts: it awarded a specific amount of fees for work up to the time of the hearing and statutory minimum fees of 10% of ongoing benefits as long as the officer received permanent total disability benefits. The State appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, which affirmed the Board’s decision because in the Commission’s view the award was not manifestly unreasonable. The State then appealed the Commission’s decision to us. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Wozniak" on Justia Law

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Two police officers retired from the Anchorage Police Department (APD) due to discrimination and retaliation. Years later, a jury found that they had been constructively discharged and awarded them lost past wages and benefits. The officers requested that the Anchorage Police and Fire Retirement System (APFRS) increase their retirement benefits based on the award of lost wages. When the APFRS Board denied their request, they appealed to the superior court. The superior court affirmed the Board’s decision and awarded it attorney’s fees. The officers appealed the court’s decision denying them an increase in retirement benefits, arguing that the Anchorage Municipal Code required a recalculation of benefits. They also appealed the attorney’s fee award as unreasonably high. Because the Anchorage Municipal Code did not permit the requested increase in retirement benefits, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order denying the officers’ administrative appeal. Because the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it awarded fees, the attorney’s fee award was also affirmed. View "Kennedy et al. v. Anchorage Police & Fire Retirement System et al." on Justia Law

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A cannery worker reported two injuries: one to his back and one to his shoulder. He suffered these injuries at different times but while working for the same employer. The employer paid some medical benefits for both injuries but eventually challenged its obligation to provide further care. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied the worker’s claim for more medical benefits, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The worker appealed pro se. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission properly affirmed the Board’s decision as to the back injury, but that the Board’s findings as to the shoulder injury lacked adequate support in the record. The Commission’s decision was therefore reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. View "Espindola v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc." on Justia Law

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After the Department of Corrections (DOC) investigated an allegation that a probation officer was providing special treatment in return for sexual favors and found it to be unsubstantiated, the probation officer sought the investigation records. DOC denied his request and the probation officer appealed to the superior court, which reversed the denial and ordered the records released because the allegation had not been substantiated. DOC appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s order because the records were shielded from disclosure by the invasion of privacy exemption to the Public Records Act. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Porche" on Justia Law

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The employee of a subcontractor on a state public works project sued the prime contractor’s surety bond for unpaid labor under Alaska’s Little Miller Act. The trial court ruled the employee failed to give notice to the contractor within the statutorily required 90 days of his last date of labor on the project. The trial court entered a directed verdict against the employee. The employee appealed to the superior court, which denied the appeal, and then petitioned the Alaska Supreme Court for hearing. This case presented two issues of first impression: (1) how to define “labor;” and (2) whether “notice” was effective on the date of mailing or the date of receipt. Under the Little Miller Act, the Supreme Court defined “labor” as work that was “necessary to and forwards” the project secured by the payment bond, and held the effective date of “notice” to be the date notice is sent via registered mail. The superior court judgment denying the employee's appeal was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Dat Luong DBA LVDH Construction v. Western Surety Co." on Justia Law

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A federal district court certified two questions of law to the Alaska Supreme Court. Schlumberger Technology Corporation was a Texas corporation providing technology services to the oil and gas industry in Alaska. Travis Buntin worked for Schlumberger in Alaska until early 2016. Shortly thereafter Buntin sued Schlumberger in federal court alleging, among other things, failure to pay overtime compensation in violation of the Alaska Wage and Hour Act (AWHA). Schlumberger responded that Buntin was not entitled to overtime compensation because the AWHA exempts individuals employed “in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity” from overtime payment. Responding to the federal court's questions, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that an employer had to prove that an AWHA exemption applied by a preponderance of the evidence, and reversed precedent to the contrary. The Supreme Court also concluded that the interpretive principle in Encino Motorcars v. Navarro, 138 S. Ct. 1134 (2018) that courts must give federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) exemptions a fair interpretation applied when the AWHA text explicitly requires alignment with FLSA interpretations. View "Buntin v. Schlumberger Technology Corporation" on Justia Law

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An Alaska State Commission for Human Rights (State) employee with preexisting medical conditions was involved in a work-related motor vehicle accident in January 2017. The employee consulted with Dr. Teresa Bormann two days after the accident; Dr. Bormann referred the employee to chiropractic treatment. After several month of treatment, Dr. Bormann referred the employee to physical therapy at United Physical Therapy (UPT) for chronic neck pain and headache. After an evaluation UPT recommended eight weeks of twice weekly physical therapy. Dr. Bormann endorsed the treatment plan, and the employee’s symptoms improved enough that she reduced her physical therapy visits to once a week beginning in mid-January. She saw UPT three times in February 2018. Payment for these February visits became the main dispute before the Board. The State arranged an employer’s medical evaluation (EME) with a neurologist and an orthopedist. The EME doctors diagnosed the employee with a cervical strain caused by the accident as well as several conditions they considered preexisting or unrelated to the work injury. After the State filed a retroactive controversion of medical treatment, the employee’s healthcare provider filed a workers’ compensation claim seeking payment for services it provided before the controversion was filed. The State disputed its liability for payment, and after several prehearing conferences, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board set a hearing on the merits of the provider’s claim. The Board ordered the State to pay the provider approximately $510.00 for the services. The State appealed, disputing several procedural aspects of the decision, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services v. Thomas et al." on Justia Law

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Members of the plaintiff class were former Alaska State employees. When they enrolled in the State employee retirement system, a statute provided that if they left eligible employment, withdrew their contributions to the system, and later returned to eligible employment, they could repay their withdrawn contributions, be reinstated to their original benefits level, and have their credited service time restored. The statute was later repealed. The superior court ruled on summary judgment that this repeal did not diminish or impair the former employees’ accrued benefits and was therefore constitutional. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the statutory reinstatement right was an accrued benefit of the retirement system protected against diminishment or impairment by article XII, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution. The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Metcalfe v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Several months after returning from maternity leave, an association’s employee accepted a new special projects position with reduced hours that allowed her to work from home. Later that year she was terminated; the association explained that there were no more special projects for her to work on and the position was no longer necessary. The employee filed suit, alleging that the association had unlawfully discriminated against her based on pregnancy and parenthood. Considering all the evidence before it, the trial court concluded that there were no genuine issues of material fact relevant to the employee’s discrimination claim, and that the association was entitled to summary judgment. The employee appealed, contending the superior court should not have considered the evidence submitted after the filing of the deficient motion and that, even if all evidence was considered, the association was not entitled to summary judgment. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court acted within its discretion by accepting the authenticating affidavit with the association’s reply, and that it properly considered all the evidence before it in granting summary judgment. View "Werba v. Association of Village Council Presidents" on Justia Law

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An employee sued her former employer for wrongful termination. The employee died, but her attorney continued to litigate, negotiate, and mediate the case for another year before informing the court or opposing counsel of her death. The superior court concluded the attorney had committed serious ethical violations related to this delay and disqualified him from the case. Post-disqualification, the attorney filed a motion to substitute the personal representative of the employee’s estate as plaintiff. The superior court issued an order dismissing the case on several grounds. The Alaska Supreme Court found the court did not abuse its discretion by disqualifying the attorney and denying the motion for substitution he submitted. The superior court was correct to dismiss the case, as only one party remained, but the Supreme Court concluded granting summary judgment in favor of the former employer and supervisor was error. "The estate is not entitled to appeal the court’s refusal to enforce a draft settlement agreement signed by the employee before her death and does not have standing to appeal the sanctions imposed against the attorney. But because the estate was not allowed to participate as a party, we conclude that awarding affirmative relief against it was error." View "Bunton v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law