Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Native American Law
L.B. (Mother) v Alaska, DHSS, OCS
In these separate but consolidated appeals, the issue common to both cases presented to the Alaska Supreme Court for review centered on whether new federal regulations materially changed the qualifications required of an expert testifying in a child in need of aid (CINA) case involving children subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). To support the termination of parental rights, ICWA required the “testimony of qualified expert witnesses . . . that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child.” Under the new federal regulations, experts who formerly could be presumptively qualified, based on their ability to testify about prevailing cultural and social standards in the child’s tribe, for example, had to also be qualified to testify about the “causal relationship between the particular conditions in the home and the likelihood that continued custody of the child will result in serious emotional or physical damage to the particular child who is the subject of the child-custody proceeding.” The Supreme Court concluded the federal regulations had materially changed an expert’s qualifications, and in these two cases, the challenged expert witnesses failed to satisfy this higher standard imposed by controlling federal law. For this reason the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the orders terminating the parents’ parental rights and remanded for further proceedings. View "L.B. (Mother) v Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law
Steve H. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS
Steve H. and Lucy A. were the parents of Donald, an Indian child2 born in April 2013. By the time Donald was born, Steve and Lucy were no longer in a relationship and Steve no longer lived in Anchorage. Donald lived with Lucy until the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) assumed emergency custody of him due to alcohol-related neglect shortly after he was born. Although Steve knew that Lucy had substance abuse problems, he left Donald in her care. When OCS took emergency custody of Donald in June 2013, Steve was “unreachable.” Donald was placed in a foster home. Steve appealed the superior court’s decision terminating his parental rights. He argued the superior court clearly erred in finding that he abandoned his son under the Child in Need of Aid (CINA) statutes. He also argued there was insufficient evidence to support termination, claiming that the record did not support the superior court’s findings that returning his son to his care would risk emotional or physical harm and that termination was in his son’s best interests. Because the superior court did not clearly err in making these findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Steve H. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law
Eva H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services
The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a three-month-old child after he was found outside alone on a cold winter day. The child’s mother had an alcohol abuse problem and had failed repeated attempts at treatment. The father also had problems with alcohol abuse, never completing treatment, and spending much of the relevant time period in jail or on probation. The mother and father had a second child while OCS’s case was pending, and the agency took custody of that child as too. OCS then petitioned to terminate parental rights to both children. The superior court granted OCS’s petition following trial. The parents appealed: the father argued the superior court erred when it found OCS’s proposed expert witness, an experienced attorney and guardian ad litem, qualified to testify about whether the children would likely suffer emotional or physical harm if returned to their parents’ care. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the record did not support a conclusion that the witness met the heightened standard for expert testimony under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); for that reason the Court reversed the termination order and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Eva H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law
Bill S. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services
Bill and Clara are the parents of Noah and Olwen, ages 12 and 5 at the time of the termination trial. Noah and Olwen were Indian children within the meaning of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) based on their affiliation with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (theTribe). Bill and Clara had a lengthy history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Noah and Olwen suffered primarily through neglect and mental injury from exposure to their parents’ conduct. While Bill’s and Clara’s violence was typically directed at each other or other family members, there were reports of alleged physical abuse of Noah. The superior court terminated the parents' rights to their children. The parents appealed, arguing the superior court erred in finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that OCS made active efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family. Because the Alaska Supreme Court determined there was insufficient evidence to support an active efforts finding under a clear and convincing evidence standard, it reversed the superior court’s active efforts finding, vacated the termination order, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Bill S. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law
Demetria H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services
A mother appealed the termination of her parental rights to her son, an Indian child. She argued the trial court violated the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) by finding that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) made active efforts and that her continued custody of her son was likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to him. She also argued that the trial court’s latter finding was not supported by the testimony of a qualified expert as required by ICWA. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s order terminating her parental rights because its findings satisfied ICWA’s requirements. View "Demetria H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law
Diego K. v. Dept. of Health & Social Services
Parents appealed a superior court’s order that found the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had satisfied the Indian Child Welfare Act’s (ICWA) requirements authorizing the removal of their daughter, an Indian child, from their custody. OCS took emergency custody of “Mary” and her older brother Claude in March 2014. It acted following a December 2013 report that Claude had been medivaced out of the family’s village due to alcohol poisoning and that his parents had been too intoxicated to accompany him, and a March 2014 report that Diego and Catharine were intoxicated and fighting in their home. OCS alleged in its emergency petition that the court should make child in need of aid (CINA) findings. At the custody hearing Diego and Catharine stipulated to probable cause that their children were in need of aid under AS 47.10.011, without admitting any of the facts alleged in the petition, and to temporary OCS custody pending an adjudication hearing. The superior court held a disposition hearing over two days in December and January. OCS argued for an order authorizing it to remove the children from their parents’ home; the parents urged the court to grant OCS only the authority to supervise the family. Because the Alaska Supreme Court found the trial court relied on information that was not in evidence to make the required ICWA removal findings, it vacated the order authorizing removal. View "Diego K. v. Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law
Kiva O. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs.
An Indian child in the custody of the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The child’s psychiatrist recommended treating him with an antidepressant, with the addition of a mood stabilizer if it later became necessary. When the mother rejected the recommendation, OCS asked the superior court for authority to consent to the medications over the mother’s objection. The court granted OCS’s request. The mother appealed, arguing that the superior court failed to apply the correct standard for determining whether her fundamental constitutional rights as a parent could be overridden. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with her in part, holding that the constitutional framework laid out in Myers v. Alaska Psychiatric Institute, 138 P.3d 238 (Alaska 2006), applied to a court’s decision whether to authorize medication of a child in OCS custody over the parent’s objection. The Supreme Court concluded that the superior court’s findings in this case regarding the antidepressant satisfied the “Myers” standard but that its findings regarding the optional mood stabilizer did not. The Court therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part the superior court’s order authorizing OCS to consent to the recommended medications. View "Kiva O. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs." on Justia Law
Merdes & Merdes, P.C. v. Leisnoi, Inc.
An attorney represented a Native corporation in litigation nearly three decades ago. The corporation disputed the attorney’s claim for fees, and in 1995, after the attorney’s death, the superior court entered judgment on an arbitration award of nearly $800,000 to the attorney’s law firm, then represented by the attorney’s son. The corporation paid eight installments on the judgment, but eventually stopped paying, citing financial difficulties. The law firm sought a writ of execution for the unpaid balance, and the writ was granted. The corporation appealed but under threat of the writ paid $643,760 while the appeal was pending. In a 2013 opinion the Alaska Supreme Court held the writ invalid and required the firm to repay the $643,760. The corporation was never repaid. The original law firm moved its assets to a new firm and sought a stay of execution, averring that the original firm now lacked the funds necessary for repayment. The corporation sued the original firm, the successor firm, and the son for breach of contract, fraudulent conveyance, conspiracy to fraudulently convey assets, violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act (UTPA), unjust enrichment, and punitive damages. The firm counterclaimed, seeking recovery in quantum meruit for attorney’s fees it claimed were still owing for its original representation. The superior court granted summary judgment for the corporation on the law firm’s quantum meruit claim and, following trial, found that the son and both law firms fraudulently conveyed assets and were liable for treble damages under the UTPA. The son and the law firms appealed, arguing the trial court erred by: (1) holding that the quantum meruit claim was barred by res judicata; (2) holding the defendants liable for fraudulent conveyance; (3) awarding damages under the UTPA; and (4) making mistakes in the form of judgment and award of costs. The Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error with one exception. The Court remanded for reconsideration of whether all three defendants are liable for prejudgment interest from the same date. View "Merdes & Merdes, P.C. v. Leisnoi, Inc." on Justia Law
Douglas Indian Association v. Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska
The superior court dismissed a complaint by Douglas Indian Association against Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and two Central Council officials on tribal sovereign immunity grounds. Douglas argued the superior court’s action was premature because sovereign immunity was an affirmative defense that should be resolved following discovery. The Alaska Supreme Court found federal courts recognizing tribal sovereign immunity is a jurisdictional bar that may be asserted at any time, and the Alaska Court agreed with this basic principle. "Immunity is a core aspect of tribal sovereignty that deprives our courts of jurisdiction when properly asserted." The Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s order dismissing the complaint. View "Douglas Indian Association v. Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska" on Justia Law
Caitlyn E. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs.
Caitlyn E., a Yupik woman, was the mother of Maggie and Bridget, ages nine and six at trial, who are Indian children within the meaning of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) based on their affiliation with the Orutsararmiut Native Council (the Tribe). Caitlyn struggled with abuse of both legal and illegal drugs since a young age. Maggie tested positive for cocaine and marijuana when she was born. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) received other reports of harm; at a doctor’s visit when the girls were toddlers, they reportedly had multiple impetigo sores on their bodies and had to be cleaned by the doctor, and Caitlyn smelled like marijuana. Caitlyn was also reported to have been violent toward both her daughters, kicking Maggie and giving her a bloody nose, and, while drunk, swinging Bridget around “like a rag doll.” The superior court terminated a Caitlyn's parental rights to the two girls. She appealed, contesting the qualification of the ICWA-required expert witness and the finding that OCS made active efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family. Because the superior court’s decision to qualify the expert witness was not an abuse of discretion, and because the superior court’s active efforts finding was not erroneous, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the termination of the mother’s parental rights. View "Caitlyn E. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs." on Justia Law