Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough
The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied a two-year limitations period to claims for “compensation for disability.” In 1988, the legislature reconfigured one type of compensation — for permanent partial disability — as compensation for permanent partial impairment. The claimant here argued this amendment exempted claims for impairment compensation from the statute of limitations. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed: because the statutory text contains ambiguity and the legislative history evinced no intent to exempt impairment claims from the statute of limitations, the Court ruled that claims for impairment compensation were subject to the Act’s two-year limitations period. A secondary issue in this case was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board properly denied paralegal costs for work related to other claims. The applicable regulation required a claim for paralegal costs be supported by the paralegal’s own affidavit attesting to the work performed. To this, the Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s argument that this regulation was contrary to statute and the constitution. View "Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law
Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District
Appellant Beverly Sumpter worked as a school aide. She reported an injury to her cervical spine after she repositioned a disabled student in his wheelchair. Sumpter had significant preexisting cervical spine problems. Doctors disagreed about whether the incident she described could have aggravated these problems and if so for how long. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that her work was not the substantial cause of her ongoing disability and need for medical care, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Sumpter appealed, contending that the Board and Commission applied incorrect legal standards and that the Board failed to make findings about material and contested issues. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District" on Justia Law
Best v. Fairbanks North Star Borough
A minor was severely injured in an all-terrain vehicle collision in which the other driver was at fault. The minor had medical benefits coverage through a health care plan provided by her father’s employer, the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As allowed by the terms of the plan, the Borough refused to pay the minor’s medical bills until she signed an agreement that included a waiver of certain defenses to the Borough’s subrogation rights, such as the common fund and made-whole doctrines. The minor refused to sign the agreement without reservation and filed suit, seeking a declaration that the Borough could not condition payment of her medical bills on her signature. The superior court decided on summary judgment that the Borough’s health care plan was not a true insurance plan and that, regardless of whether it was interpreted as an insurance policy or an ordinary contract, the parties could lawfully reject subrogation defenses. The minor appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the health care plan was a bargained-for employee benefit rather than a true insurance policy, and that the superior court’s interpretation of it was correct. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Best v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law
Alaska Department of Corrections v. Wozniak
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
Kennedy et al. v. Anchorage Police & Fire Retirement System et al.
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
Espindola v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc.
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
Alaska Department of Corrections v. Porche
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
Dat Luong DBA LVDH Construction v. Western Surety Co.
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
Buntin v. Schlumberger Technology Corporation
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
Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services v. Thomas et al.
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