Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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The Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed a lower court's decision that the Copper River Native Association (CRNA), a non-profit corporation formed by federally recognized Alaska Native tribes, is an arm of its member tribes and thus entitled to tribal sovereign immunity. The case arose when a former employee sued CRNA over her termination. The superior court dismissed her complaint, concluding that CRNA was an arm of its member tribes and therefore entitled to sovereign immunity. The former employee appealed, arguing that CRNA was not entitled to tribal immunity. The Supreme Court of Alaska agreed with CRNA that the legal landscape defining the contours of tribal sovereign immunity has shifted significantly since its 2004 decision in Runyon ex rel. B.R. v. Association of Village Council Presidents. The court adopted a multi-factor inquiry to determine whether an entity is entitled to “arm-of-the-tribe” immunity. Applying this multi-factor inquiry, the court concluded that CRNA is an arm of its member tribes and affirmed the superior court's decision. View "Ito v. Copper River Native Association" on Justia Law

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In the case of Brett Lane v. the State of Alaska, Department of Family & Community Services, Office of Children’s Services, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the lower court's decision denying the Office of Children's Services's (OCS) post-trial motion for a new trial on liability. The court concluded that the weight of the evidence supported the jury's verdict on Lane's theories of retaliation. However, the court found an error in the jury instruction relating to noneconomic damages caused by a dangerous client, Wilson. As a result, the court vacated the damages judgment and remanded for a new trial solely on noneconomic damages. The court also remanded the matter back to the lower court for an evidentiary hearing on OCS's claim that the jury award duplicated workers’ compensation benefits that Lane received. The court held that OCS should be given the opportunity to prove that the jury award created an impermissible duplication of damages. View "State of Alaska v. Lane" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was asked to determine whether the question of a deceased worker's status as an employee or independent contractor under the Alaska Worker's Compensation Act should be determined by a jury or a judge. The lawsuit was initiated by the estate of Nicholson Tinker, a worker who was killed in a construction accident while working for Mark Welty, doing business as North Country Services. Welty had no workers' compensation coverage at the time of the accident. Tinker's estate argued that he was an employee and that under the Act, Welty was presumed negligent because he had no compensation coverage. Welty argued that Tinker was an independent contractor, hence the Act did not apply.The superior court decided that the question of employee status was an issue for the jury to decide. The estate appealed this decision, arguing that the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Benson v. City of Nenana determined that a judge, not a jury, should decide the issue of a worker's status under the Act.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska agreed with the estate, holding that the superior court must determine whether Tinker was an employee or independent contractor under the Act as a preliminary issue before trial. The Court reasoned that the applicability of the Act is a legal determination with factual underpinnings that the court should decide as a preliminary matter. The Court also noted that determining the employee status promptly is significant due to its potential impact on basic issues such as the type of action a party can bring or the burden of proof for negligence. Therefore, the Court reversed the superior court’s order that the jury decides the issue of employee status and remanded for further proceedings. View "Leona Seal, Personal Representative of the Estate of Nicholson J. Tinker v. Mark C. Welty D/B/A North Country Services" on Justia Law

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In a dispute between the State of Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services and Jennifer D. White and John P. Shannon, D.C., the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska had to consider whether an adjudicative agency could refuse to consider a contested legal question because the legislature had given a different agency authority over the contested legal issue. In this particular case, the employer disputed its liability under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act for an injured employee’s chiropractic care, alleging that the care provided was not compensable because it was outside the scope of the chiropractor’s license. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided it did not have jurisdiction to determine the chiropractor’s scope of practice because the legislature had granted that authority to the Alaska Board of Chiropractic Examiners. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the Commission’s decision, agreeing that the workers’ compensation agencies lacked jurisdiction to determine the boundaries of chiropractic practice in the context of this case. The court also agreed with the Commission’s discovery decision, concluding that the discovery was not relevant to issues within the Board’s jurisdiction. The court further affirmed the Commission’s decision that the treatments were compensable. View "State of Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services v. White" on Justia Law

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Alaska, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement with the Alaska State Employees Association (ASEA), a public sector union representing thousands of State employees, including union members and nonmembers, deducted union members’ dues from their paychecks and deducted from nonmembers’ paychecks a mandatory “agency fee” and transmitted the funds to ASEA. In June 2018 the United States Supreme Court held in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Janus) that charging union agency fees to nonmember public employees violated their First Amendment rights by “compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” The State and ASEA modified their collective bargaining agreement to comply with Janus, and the State halted collecting agency fees from nonmembers. In 2019, after a change in executive branch administrations following the November 2018 election, the State took the position that Janus also required the State to take steps to protect union member employees’ First Amendment rights. The State contended that Janus required it to obtain union members’ clear and affirmative consent to union dues deductions, or else they too might be compelled to fund objectionable speech on issues of substantial public concern. The governor issued an administrative order directing the State to bypass ASEA and deal directly with individual union members to determine whether they wanted their dues deductions to continue and to immediately cease collecting dues upon request. Some union members expressed a desire to leave the union and requested to stop dues deductions; the State ceased collecting their union dues. The State then sued ASEA, seeking declaratory judgment that Janus compelled the State’s actions. ASEA countersued seeking to enjoin the State’s actions and recover damages for breach of the collective bargaining agreement and violations of several statutes. The superior court ruled in favor of ASEA, and the State appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s declaratory judgment in favor of ASEA because neither Janus nor the First Amendment required the State to alter the union member dues deduction practices set out in the collective bargaining agreement. And because the State’s actions were not compelled by Janus or the First Amendment, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s rulings that the State breached the collective bargaining agreement and violated relevant statutes. View "Alaska, et al. v. Alaska St. Emp. Ass'n, et al." 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

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that a carpenter who admitted using alcohol and cocaine before his injury had a compensable disability because it determined the accident would have happened regardless of his drug and alcohol use. The Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund, which was responsible for payment if an employer defaults, appealed, arguing that the employee’s intoxication barred compensation. The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision because substantial evidence supported it. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska Workers' Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund v. Adams, et al." on Justia Law

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Attorney David Graham represented Sandra Rusch and Brenda Dockter in separate proceedings against the same employer before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. Rusch injured her back working for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) in Klawock. Dockter sustained a knee injury at work for SEARHC in Sitka. After litigation, the parties successfully settled most issues with the assistance of a Board mediator. The parties were unable to resolve the amount of attorney’s fees SEARHC would pay for Graham’s work, so that issue proceeded to hearings, which the Board heard jointly. The Board awarded far less in attorney’s fees than the claimants sought. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decisions, resolving most but not all issues in favor of the claimants, and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. The Supreme Court instructed the Board to consider the factors from the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct to determine reasonable fees. After the Supreme Court awarded attorney’s fees to the claimants for their appeal to the Court, the claimants sought fees for their work in the first appeal to the Commission, asking the Commission to adopt the modified lodestar approach to awarding fees. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act authorized the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission to award enhanced attorney’s fees to successful claimants for their attorneys’ work in a Commission appeal. The Commission decided the Act did not. But because the Commission’s decision rested on an incorrect interpretation of the Act and because the Commission failed to consider the claimants’ evidence and arguments in favor of enhancement, the Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Commission for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" 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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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