Articles Posted in Native American Law

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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

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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

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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

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The father of three Indian children killed their mother. After the father’s arrest, the father’s relatives moved the children from Alaska to Texas and gained custody of the children through a Texas district court order. The mother’s sister filed a separate action against the father in Alaska superior court, seeking custody of the children and challenging the Texas order. Although Alaska had exclusive jurisdiction to make the initial custody determination, the Alaska court concluded that Texas was the more appropriate forum and ceded its jurisdiction to the Texas court, primarily because evidence about the children’s current status was in Texas. The Alaska Supreme Court vacated the superior court’s decision: it was an abuse of discretion to minimize the importance of protecting the children from the father’s alleged domestic violence and to minimize evidence required to resolve domestic violence and Indian Child Welfare Act issues in this case. View "Rice v. McDonald" on Justia Law

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A federally recognized Alaska Native tribe adopted a process for adjudicating the child support obligations of parents whose children are members of the tribe or are eligible for membership, and it operated a federally funded child support enforcement agency. The Tribe sued the State and won a declaratory judgment that its tribal court system had subject matter jurisdiction over child support matters and an injunction requiring the State’s child support enforcement agency to recognize the tribal courts’ child support orders in the same way it recognized such orders from other states. Because the Supreme Court agreed that tribal courts had inherent subject matter jurisdiction to decide the child support obligations owed to children who are tribal members or were eligible for membership, and that state law thus required the State’s child support enforcement agency to recognize and enforce a tribal court’s child support orders, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Alaska v. Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska" on Justia Law

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Jennifer and Adam were the parents of three minor children: a daughter, Andrea, and two younger boys. The children were Indian children as defined in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The State's Office of Children's Services (OCS) took three minor children into emergency custody, then sought a court order granting OCS temporary custody, asserting there was probable cause to find the children in need of aid. A standing master determined that no probable cause existed and recommended that the three children be returned to their mother's custody. The State objected to the master's recommendation, and the superior court reviewed and rejected it, finding that there was probable cause. The mother filed this appeal, asking the Supreme Court to hold that masters have the authority to return children to their homes without judicial review. Before the State filed its brief, the superior court dismissed the underlying case, making this appeal moot. After its review, the Supreme Court applied the "public interest" exception to the mootness doctrine and affirmed the superior court's ruling. View "Jennifer L. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs." on Justia Law

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Two parents disputed the legal custody and visitation rights for their daughter; the mother resided in Alaska and the father resided on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. The superior court awarded sole legal custody to the mother because it concluded that the parties could not communicate effectively to co-parent their daughter. The court ordered unsupervised visitation between the father and the daughter in Alaska, but prohibited visitation on the reservation until the daughter turned eight. The father appealed. Although the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it decided legal custody, the Supreme Court concluded the superior court failed to fully justify its decision when creating its restrictive visitation schedule and allocating visitation expenses. Consequently the Supreme Court remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Red Elk v. McBride" on Justia Law

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Sometime in early 2007, "Connie" approached Holly and William Ebert, a married couple she knew from church, about adopting her child. Connie wanted the Eberts to adopt her child because she thought they would be loving parents and because they shared her religious values. The Eberts agreed to the adoption. "Bruce" and Connie began a relationship in August 2006. At some point, Connie told Bruce that she was pregnant and was considering giving up the child for adoption. Bruce objected to the adoption. After a final attempt to repair their relationship, Bruce and Connie separated permanently in January 2007 and that was when Connie contacted the Eberts about her child. Before the child was born, the Eberts met with Bruce "to discuss a consent to adopt." In late December 2007, Bruce filed a complaint for custody of the child, "Timothy." In July 2008 the Eberts filed an adoption petition and intervened in Bruce's custody case. The superior court ordered paternity testing, and Bruce obtained a positive result. The court appointed counsel for Bruce and consolidated the adoption and custody cases. The superior court ordered an interim custody arrangement after a hearing in December 2008. The court granted physical custody to the Eberts and semiweekly visitation to Bruce. The court also ordered Bruce to pay $50 per month in child support, retroactive to 2007; over the next four months, Bruce paid a total of $200 in support. It was undisputed that Bruce paid no child support before being ordered to do so at a December 2008 hearing. He later testified that he did not realize he had a child support obligation and that the Eberts never applied to the Child Support Services Division for child support. Bruce claimed he was under the impression that the Eberts were wealthy and did not need his financial assistance. In May 2009 the superior court held a trial on the adoption petition and the custody dispute. In post-trial briefing, Bruce argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) compelled the court to grant Bruce custody of Timothy and prevented the Eberts from adopting Timothy without Bruce's consent. The Eberts argued that Bruce could not invoke ICWA to prevent the adoption because he was not a "parent" for purposes of the statute until he established paternity in late 2008. They also argued that ICWA section 1912(d)'s "active efforts" provision did not apply in a private adoption, particularly when the parent seeking to invoke ICWA had no meaningful connection to any tribe. And they maintained that, even if ICWA applied, the supervised visitation provided to Bruce was adequate to fulfill the active efforts requirement. Finally, they argued that Bruce's consent to the adoption was not required under state law because Bruce could not show that his failure to communicate with or support Timothy during the child's first year of life was justifiable. Connie, who continued to support the adoption, made arguments similar to the Eberts'. The Eberts and Connie appealed the superior court's denial of the adoption, claiming that Bruce's consent to the adoption was unnecessary. The Supreme Court found that under AS 25.23.050(a)(2)(B), the consent of a noncustodial parent was not required for adoption if that parent unjustifiably fails to support the child. But the superior court did not clearly err by concluding that Bruce had justifiable cause for his failure to support the child. View "Ebert v. Bruce L." on Justia Law

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This case began in July 2008 when the Alaska Office of Children's Services (OCS) assumed custody of four-month-old "Dawn" from her parents. Dawn was found to be a child in need of aid (CINA). Dawn's parents were Native Alaskans and thus the protections and requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) applied. Native Village of Tununak (the Tribe) intervened in Dawn's CINA case and submitted a list of potential placement options for Dawn, including Dawn's maternal grandmother, Elise, who lived in the village. Throughout much of the case, the parents and Tribe agreed there was good cause not to place Dawn with an ICWA preferred placement, and Dawn was eventually placed with the Smiths, non-Native foster parents who live in Anchorage. The superior court terminated Dawn's parents' parental rights at a September 2011 trial, making Dawn eligible for adoption. The Tribe asserted that, given the termination of parental rights, there was no longer good cause to deviate from ICWA's placement preferences and objected to Dawn's continued placement in Anchorage. In November the Smiths filed a petition to adopt Dawn. At no point in the case did Elise file an adoption petition in the superior court. The superior court conducted a placement hearing following the Tribe's objection to placement with the Smiths. Following testimony by a number of witnesses, including Elise, the court found that there was continued good cause to deviate from ICWA's adoptive placement preferences and again approved Dawn's placement with the Smiths. The court then granted the Smiths' adoption petition in March 2012. Dawn was almost four years old, and had lived with the Smiths for almost two and a half years. In separate appeals, the Tribe appealed both the superior court's order finding that there was good cause to deviate from ICWA's placement preferences and the adoption order. The Supreme Court then issued an order staying the adoption appeal while it considered the adoptive placement appeal. In 2013, the Court issued a decision in the first appeal that examined Dawn's adoptive placement with the Smiths. The Court reversed the superior court's finding of good cause to deviate from ICWA's placement preferences. Four days after the Alaska Court issued its opinion in the adoptive placement appeal ("Tununak I"), the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in "Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl" (Baby Girl). There, the Supreme Court held that ICWA "section 1915(a)'s [placement] preferences are inapplicable in cases where no alternative party has formally sought to adopt the child. This is because there simply is no 'preference' to apply if no alternative party that is eligible to be preferred under section 1915(a) has come forward." The Alaska Court concluded that the decision in "Baby Girl" applied directly to the adoptive placement case on remand and to this adoption appeal. "We discern no material factual differences between the Baby Girl case and this case, so we are unable to distinguish the holding in Baby Girl. Because the Supreme Court's holding in Baby Girl is clear and not qualified in any material way, and because it is undisputed that Elise did not 'formally [seek] to adopt' Dawn in the superior court, we conclude that, as in Baby Girl, 'there simply is no 'preference' to apply[,] [as] no alternative party that is eligible to be preferred under § 1915(a) has come forward[,]' and therefore ICWA . . .preferences are inapplicable." The Court therefore affirmed the superior court's order granting the Smiths' petition to adopt Dawn and vacated its remand order in "Tununak I" requiring the superior court to conduct further adoptive placement proceedings. View "Native Village of Tununak v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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The Minto Tribal Court terminated the parental rights of Edward Parks and Bessie Stearman to their daughter S.P. At the termination hearing, the attorney for Parks and Stearman was not permitted to present oral argument to the tribal court. Parks did not file an appeal with the Minto Court of Appeals and instead brought suit against S.P.'s foster parents, the Simmondses, in the state superior court in an attempt to regain custody of S.P. The Simmondses moved to dismiss Parks's state lawsuit on the basis that the tribal court judgment terminating parental rights was entitled to full faith and credit under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The superior court denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that full faith and credit should not be afforded because the tribal court had denied Parks minimum due process by prohibiting his attorney from presenting oral argument on his objections to tribal court jurisdiction based on his status as a non-tribal member. Although the superior court recognized that oral argument is not a per se requirement of minimum due process, the superior court concluded that the denial of oral argument in this case deprived Parks of a meaningful opportunity to be heard because Parks did not receive sufficient notice that his attorney would not be allowed to present oral argument to the tribal court. The Simmondses appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the superior court for further findings. On remand, the superior court reiterated its prior conclusion of a violation of minimum due process and further concluded that the due process error was not harmless because Parks's objections to the Minto Tribal Court's jurisdiction might have had merit. The Simmondses appealed again to the Supreme Court. Because Parks failed to exhaust his remedies in the Minto Court of Appeals, the Court concluded that his state court suit should have been dismissed. Accordingly, the Court reversed the superior court's decision and remanded for dismissal of Parks's suit. View "Simmonds v. Parks" on Justia Law