Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Landlord - Tenant
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The district court entered a default judgment against a litigant in a dispute over real property improvements and rent. Following a levy on his bank account, the litigant moved for relief from the default judgment, attesting that he had stopped participating in the lawsuit because he believed it was about to be dismissed. The district court denied the motion, but on appeal the superior court reversed on procedural grounds. On remand the litigant amended his answer to assert a counterclaim for conversion of personal property; the counterclaim would have been time-barred unless allowed to relate back to the date of the litigant’s original answer. The district court held that the litigant was judicially estopped from pursuing the counterclaim because it was contradictory for him to assert it after attesting that he believed for years that the case against him had been dismissed. The superior court affirmed this decision. The Alaska Supreme Court granted certiorari review to address one issue: whether judicial estoppel barred the conversion counterclaim. The Court concluded the litigant’s two positions — his asserted belief that the case had been dismissed and his later assertion of a counterclaim — were not clearly inconsistent and that the judicial estoppel doctrine therefore was inapplicable. The superior court’s decision affirming the district court’s judgment on this issue was reversed and the matter remanded to the district court for further proceedings on the counterclaim. View "Zwiacher v, Capstone Family Medical Clinic, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Bachner Company leased office space to the State of Alaska. The lease stipulated that the State would occupy 15,730 square feet of space but would not have to pay rent on 1,400 square feet of that space during the lease’s initial ten-year term. The lease further specified that if it was extended beyond the initial term the parties would negotiate a rate for the free space and the State would pay for it. Toward the end of the initial term the State exercised its first renewal option and opened negotiations with the company over the free space’s value. The parties retained an expert to value the space, but the State questioned his methods and conclusions. The State also resisted the company’s claim that the State should begin paying rent for additional space, not identified in the lease, that the company contended the State had been occupying. The parties failed to reach agreement, and the State did not pay rent for any of the extra square footage. Eventually the State executed a unilateral amendment to the lease based on the expert’s valuation and, ten months after the end of the lease’s initial term, paid all past-due rent for the formerly free space identified in the lease. The company filed a claim with the Department of Administration, contending that the State had materially breached the lease, the lease was terminated, and the State owed additional rent. A contracting officer rejected the claim, and on appeal an administrative law judge found there was no material breach, the lease had been properly extended, and the company had waived any claim regarding space not identified in the lease. The Commissioner of the Department of Administration adopted the administrative law judge’s findings and conclusions. The superior court affirmed the Commissioner’s decision except with regard to the space not identified in the lease; it directed the company to pursue any such claim in a separate action. Both parties appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the administrative law judge's findings were supported by substantial evidence, and because the lease did not terminate under the Supreme Court's interpretation of it, the Court affirmed the Commissioner's decision except with regard to the company's claim to rent for space not identified in the lease. The Court concluded that, to the extent it sought rent after the end of the initial term, it was not waived by the document on which the administrative law judge relied to find waiver. Only that issue was remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration. View "Bachner Company, Inc. v. Alaska Department of Administration" on Justia Law

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Tok Hwang owned a lessee interest in, and related improvements on, a commercial lot (the leasehold) near the Denali National Park entrance. Hwang leased the lot from a third party for $20,000 annually. Hwang subleased the leasehold to Alaska Fur Gallery, Inc. in April 2012. The sublease (the lease) provided that Alaska Fur would pay $55,000 annual rent for a three-summer term. The disputed provision stated, in full: “Lease includes an option to purchase premises with lease amount to be applied to negotiated purchase price.” When the sublessee attempted to exercise the option the lessee declined to sell, claiming the option was unenforceable. The sublessee sued, seeking, among other things, to enforce the option provision. The superior court held that the provision was too uncertain to enforce either as an option or as an agreement to negotiate. The sublessee appealed; but finding no reversible error in the superior court’s decision, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Alaska Fur Gallery, Inc. v. Hwang" on Justia Law

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In September 2003, Bachner Company Inc. entered into a contract with the Alaska Department of Administration, to lease portions of the Denali Building in Fairbanks. After a ten-year lease term and a one-year renewal, Bachner alleged that the State was in default on its rent payments, and it filed suit in superior court to recover. The State moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the claim was governed by the Alaska State Procurement Code and that Bachner had failed to exhaust its remedies under the code before filing suit. The superior court agreed and granted the State’s motion to dismiss. Bachner appealed. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the procurement code covered a rent dispute over an ongoing lease, that the Bachner's claim fell under the procurement code, and Bachner had to exhaust its administrative remedies before filing suit in superior court. View "Bachner Company Incorporated v. State, Dept. of Administration" on Justia Law

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Arthur Kinnan lived in a residence as part of a substance abuse treatment program operated by Sitka Counseling. Funding for that program ended, and Sitka Counseling informed Kinnan that he would be required to vacate. Kinnan filed suit against Sitka Counseling and two of its staff members, unsuccessfully alleging several torts based on the defendants’ conduct when removing him from the premises, violations of Alaska’s Landlord Tenant Act, and deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Kinnan argued on appeal to the Supreme Court that the superior court wrongfully denied a continuance to allow him to seek counsel, wrongfully excluded the testimony of a late-disclosed witness and two affidavits, and improperly facilitated questioning regarding Kinnan’s mental disability. The Supreme Court concluded that any error resulting from the exclusion of Kinnan’s witness was harmless and saw no abuse of discretion in the superior court’s denial of Kinnan’s continuance, its exclusion of the affidavits as hearsay, or its consideration of Kinnan’s mental disability. Furthermore, the Court also rejected Kinnan’s argument that the superior court’s adverse rulings created an appearance of judicial bias. View "Kinnan v. Sitka Counseling" on Justia Law

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In late April 2006 Samuel Sengul leased a commercial storefront in downtown Juneau to Robert Manus, who was acting on behalf of CMS Franklin, Inc. The building was under construction when Sengul and CMS entered into the lease agreement, but the lease provided that Sengul would deliver the property to CMS in a specified improved condition by the time the lease commenced on June 1. The lease also included a rent abatement provision, which was at issue in this case. The building was not in improved condition until approximately June 8. Manus did not pay any rent, nor did he mention the rent abatement provision when he took possession of the building. Sengul finally demanded rent in late July, but Manus refused to pay, claiming abatement. In September, Manus had still not paid any rent, and Sengul put a lock on CMS's store door and placed signs demanding rent in the store windows. Manus had the lock cut off, but began to move the inventory out of the store, vacating it and returning the keys to Sengul two days after the lockout. Sengul then sued CMS and Manus for unpaid rent. The superior court determined that CMS had waived its right to rent abatement and owed Sengul unpaid rental amounts for the time that Manus had occupied the building. But the court also concluded that Sengul's lockout amounted to constructive eviction and awarded CMS damages as a refund for work performed on the premises that CMS was unable to benefit from after the constructive eviction. Upon review, the Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that Sengul's actions constituted constructive eviction, but the Court disagreed that CMS waived its entitlement to have the rent abated. The case was remanded for the superior court to recalculate the damages owed to CMS. View "Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc." on Justia Law

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Gas producers that lease land from Alaska must pay royalties calculated on the value of the gas produced from the leased area. The royalty may be calculated in one of two methods: the “higher of” pricing or contract pricing. “Higher of” pricing is the default method of calculating royalties and is calculated using market data and the prices of other producers. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) usually does not calculate the royalty payments under “higher of” pricing until years after production. Under contract pricing, the lessee’s price at which it sells gas is used to determine the royalty payment. Appellant Marathon Oil requested contract pricing from 2008 onward and sought retroactive application of contract pricing for 2003-2008. The DNR approved contract pricing from 2008 onward but denied the retroactive application. The superior court affirmed the DNR’s decision. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Marathon argued that the statute that governs contract pricing permitted retroactive application of contract pricing. Upon review of the arguments and the applicable legal authority, the Supreme Court concluded that though the statute was ambiguous, it would defer to the DNR’s interpretation. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision to uphold the DNR’s order. View "Marathon Oil Co. v. Dep't. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

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Chilkoot Lumber Company, a commercial landlord (Chilkoot) and its tenant, Rainbow Glacier Seafood (Rainbow) resolved their lease dispute by settlement and entered the terms of the settlement on the record at trial. Rainbow did not follow through with its duties under the settlement agreement. After the time for performance by Rainbow had expired, Chilkoot moved the court to enforce the agreement. The superior court denied the motion to enforce. On reconsideration, the parties tentatively agreed to reinstate the settlement agreement with new deadlines for performance. When they could not agree on new deadlines, the superior court entered an order that enforced the settlement agreement as modified by Rainbow’s proposed deadlines. Chilkoot subsequently violated the order, and the superior court ordered it to pay $1,000 per day it violated the agreement. Chilkoot appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the superior court erred by imposing its own deadlines and sanctioning Chilkoot $1,000 per day. Upon review of the record, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s order. The Court held it was an error for the lower court to conclude that the parties had not reached a settlement agreement and to deny Chilkoot’s motion to enforce the agreement. Furthermore, the Court found that the court’s sanctions against Chilkoot were "coercive and remedial, rather than punitive." The Court reversed the superior court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Chilkoot Lumber Co. v. Rainbow Glacier Seafoods, Inc." on Justia Law