Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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A police officer applied for a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) for several years when he was not eligible to receive one. Following an investigation, the Executive Director of the Alaska Police Standards Council petitioned the Council to revoke the officer’s police certificate on the ground that he lacked good moral character. An administrative law judge recommended against revoking the certificate, finding that the officer’s mistakes were not sufficient to demonstrate dishonesty or a lack of respect for the law. The Council, however, concluded that the officer’s hearing testimony - that he would fill out the applications in the same way if he had to do it over again - showed dishonesty and a lack of respect for the law, and it therefore revoked his certificate. The superior court agreed with the administrative law judge’s analysis of the evidence and the law and reversed the Council’s decision. The Council appeals. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the evidence disproportionately supported the finding of the administrative law judge that the police officer’s PFD applications and hearing testimony, while mistaken about the law, were not sufficient to raise substantial doubts about the officer’s good moral character. The Court affirmed the superior court's decision reversing the Council's revocation of the police certificate. View "Alaska Police Standards Council v. Maxwell" on Justia Law

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Gregory Weaver worked at remote sites for ARCTEC Alaska1 off and on for several years as a relief station mechanic. His job involved heavy labor, and he filed several reports of injury during the times he worked for ARCTEC. He reported in December 2010 that he had “pulled something in the lower spinal area” while adjusting tire chains on a dump truck. He filed another injury report related to his back in early 2012, after he experienced back pain while installing garage door panels. Weaver passed “fit for duty” physical examinations after both of these injuries. In 2013, however, he woke up one morning with back pain that made it hard for him to walk. He said his back pain “had been building up for several months,” but he could not identify a specific task related to the onset of pain. He said “the majority of the heavy lifting” he did that summer had been at Indian Mountain, but he described work at Barter Island as including significant shoveling and pushing wheelbarrows of rocks over difficult surfaces. He thought the camp bed provided inadequate back support. He asked to be flown out because of his back pain and has not worked since. Weaver began receiving About six months later his employer controverted all benefits based on a medical opinion that the work caused only workers’ compensation benefits after experiencing severe low back pain at a remote job site. About six months later his employer controverted all benefits based on a medical opinion that the work caused only a temporary aggravation of a preexisting condition. Weaver the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board to join a prior back injury claim against the same employer. Following a lengthy and complex administrative process, the Board denied the worker’s claim for additional benefits, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Board's and Commission's decisions. View "Weaver v. ASRC Federal Holding Co." on Justia Law

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A construction contractor’s employees were injured on the job and received workers’ compensation benefits from their employer. The workers later brought a negligence suit against three other corporations: the one that had entered into the construction contract with their employer, that corporation’s parent corporation, and an affiliated corporation that operated the facility under construction. The three corporations moved for summary judgment, arguing that all three were “project owners” potentially liable for the payment of workers’ compensation benefits and therefore were protected from liability under the exclusive liability provision of the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act. The superior court granted the motion, rejecting the workers’ argument that status as a “project owner” was limited to a corporation that had a contractual relationship with their employer. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded a project owner, for purposes of the Act, "must be someone who actually contracts with a person to perform specific work and enjoys the beneficial use of that work." Furthermore, the Court found the workers raised issues of material fact about which of the three corporate defendants satisfied this definition. Judgment was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Lovely, et al. v Baker Hughes, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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An attorney began representing two injured workers after both encountered difficulties representing themselves in their workers’ compensation claims against the same employer. Both claimants then successfully resolved their claims through mediation, with both receiving substantial settlements. The parties were unable to resolve the question of their attorney’s fees, so the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board held hearings on that issue. The Board limited the witnesses at the hearings and ultimately awarded significantly reduced attorney’s fees in both claims. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decisions. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission incorrectly interpreted Alaska case law about attorney’s fees, because the Board denied the claimants the opportunity to present witnesses, and because the amount of attorney’s fees awarded to both claimants was manifestly unreasonable, the Supreme Court reversed in part the Commission’s decisions and remanded for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law

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A hotel housekeeper injured her back while lifting a pile of linens. Her employer challenged her application for benefits based on an examining doctor’s opinion that she was medically stable and that the job injury was no longer the substantial cause of any disability or need for medical treatment. After a hearing, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that the woman was medically stable as of the date of the doctor’s opinion and therefore not entitled to further disability payments or to benefits for permanent partial impairment. The Board also denied further medical care after the date of medical stability. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision, and the woman appealed. Because the Board’s selected date of medical stability was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated the Commission’s decision and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. View "Tobar v. Remington Holdings LP" on Justia Law

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Two prisoners in Alaska Department of Corrections’ (DOC) custody were placed in administrative segregation pending an investigation and disciplinary proceedings related to an alleged escape attempt. The disciplinary decisions were later overturned on appeal to the superior court based on procedural defects. However, the prisoners had lost their Prison Industries jobs because of the administrative segregation placements. They filed a civil suit against two DOC officers in superior court, alleging due process violations and seeking damages for lost wages and property. The case was removed to federal court; the federal judge ruled that the inmates lacked a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs and that the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Meanwhile, the prisoners filed another complaint in the superior court, this time naming the officers in both their official and individual capacities and raising due process claims under both the United States and Alaska Constitutions. After both parties cross-moved for summary judgment, the superior court granted summary judgment for the DOC officers, finding that although the federal judgment did not bar the prisoners’ complaint under the doctrine of res judicata, their constitutional claims lacked merit and the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The prisoners appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing they had a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs; that this interest was clearly established and therefore precludes a qualified immunity defense; that the superior court made various procedural errors; and that it did not adequately instruct the unrepresented prisoners on how to pursue their claims. Because the Supreme Court found the administrative segregation hearings conducted by DOC satisfied any due process requirements to which the prisoners may have been entitled, and because the superior court did not abuse its discretion in any of its procedural rulings, it affirmed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment. View "Smith v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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After 36 years of service with the Alaska Railroad Corporation, most of those years as a conductor, Harry Ross, an African-American man, applied for a newly created managerial trainmaster position, but he was not chosen. He brought an unsuccessful internal racial discrimination complaint. He brought a similar complaint before the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, and it was denied. He then appealed to the superior court, and it ultimately affirmed the Commission’s determination that he had failed to carry his burden of showing racial discrimination. On appeal to us, the man contends that the Railroad’s stated reasons for not hiring him were pretextual. Although the Alaska Supreme Court found some basis for Ross’ arguments that a hiring panel member may have harbored racial prejudice and that the explanation that he was not chosen because of poor interview performance was a post-hoc rationalization, the Court reviewed the Commission’s determination only for substantial supporting evidence. Under this deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court concluded the evidence detracting from the Commission’s determination was not dramatically disproportionate to the supporting evidence. Because substantial evidence in the record thus supported the Commission’s determination, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision upholding it. View "Ross v. Alaska Human Rights Commission" on Justia Law

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Jeff Graham was employed as a firefighter/EMT by the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD). He worked for AFD since 1995 and has held his then-current position since 2003. After taking AFD’s engineer promotional exam in 2010, Graham wrote a letter to the AFD fire chief criticizing the subjective nature of the test. In 2012 Graham failed the interview portion of the engineer exam. He subsequently filed a complaint with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, alleging discrimination on the basis of his race (Korean) and age (48). He also petitioned his union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1264 (the Union), to file a grievance against the Municipality of Anchorage on his behalf, under the Union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Municipality. Graham later prevailed in a civil suit against the Municipality of Anchorage for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. He was awarded partial attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(1). Graham argued he should have instead been awarded full fees and costs under his union’s collective bargaining agreement with the Municipality. Because the fee recovery provision in the agreement was not applicable to Graham’s case, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order denying Graham’s motion for full attorney’s fees and costs. View "Graham v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

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An employer disputed liability for attorney’s fees the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission awarded an employee, contending that the employee was not a successful party in the appeal and that the amount awarded was unreasonable. The Alaska Supreme Court found the Commission’s underlying decision on the merits included a remand on one issue; the Supreme Court asked the parties to provide supplemental briefing on the question whether the attorney’s fees order was final for purposes of appeal. The Supreme Court held that such orders were not final for purposes of appeal, but it treated the putative appeal as a petition for review, grant review, and affirmed the Commission’s attorney’s fees award. View "D&D Services, LLC d/b/a Novus Auto Glass & Ohio v. Cavitt" on Justia Law

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John Buckley started working for Labor Ready, Inc., a temporary employment service, in 2009. He was injured on assignment for a shipping company. At the time of injury he was performing a task prohibited by the contract between the temporary employment service and the shipping company. The injury resulted in loss of the worker’s hand and part of his arm. After getting workers’ compensation benefits from the temporary employment service, the worker brought a negligence action against the shipping company and one shipping company employee. The superior court decided on cross-motions for summary judgment that the exclusive liability provision of the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) barred the action. The Alaska Supreme Court reverse, finding material issues of fact precluded disposition by summary judgment. View "Buckley v. American Fast Freight, Inc." on Justia Law