Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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In this case, Lee Baker and Kenneth Duffus were partners in a real estate development company, Harvest Properties, LLC. Baker was accused of defrauding the company, leading to a lawsuit from the company's members for defaulting on a loan. Duffus cross-claimed against Baker, alleging Baker had violated the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). Baker argued that the UTPA did not apply since his conduct was part of a real estate transaction and was within the company's internal operations. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska rejected Baker's arguments and affirmed the superior court's ruling. The court held that Baker's fraudulent actions were not part of a real estate transaction because they did not involve the actual transfer of an interest in real property. Instead, they interfered with the company's ability to realize larger, future real estate transactions. The court also held that the UTPA applies even when a party has a fiduciary relationship with a business entity if the parties also engage in arms-length commercial transactions. Baker's provision of services through his separate corporation was considered such an arms-length transaction. View "Baker v. Duffus" 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 the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the petitioner, Eric McDonald, an employee of a subcontractor, suffered injuries during the renovation of a high school. He sued Architects Alaska, Inc. and BBFM Engineers, Inc., alleging that they negligently failed to exercise reasonable care in the design, supervision, implementation, and specifications of the demolition of the renovation project. Before trial, the parties’ attorneys discussed the possibility of a settlement, and the defendants moved to enforce a “walk-away” settlement they claimed had been reached through email correspondence. McDonald, unrepresented at this point, did not file a substantive response to the defendants’ motion. The superior court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the case.About a year later, McDonald moved for relief from judgment under Alaska Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), arguing that he had never given his attorney authority to settle the case. A different superior court judge granted the motion, finding that factual issues precluded summary judgment on whether a settlement agreement existed, that the earlier dismissal was erroneous as a law matter, and that extraordinary circumstances otherwise entitled McDonald to Rule 60(b) relief. The defendants petitioned for review, and the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska reversed the ruling on the ground that McDonald’s Rule 60(b) motion was not filed within a reasonable time. View "BBFM Engineers, Inc. v. McDonald" on Justia Law

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In Fairbanks, Alaska, a man, Timothy Teslow, cut down a grove of birch trees on a property that was up for sale by its owner, Wallace Cox. The property was subsequently bought by David and Rhetta Bragg. The Braggs sued Teslow for damages, claiming that he had trespassed on the property and cut down the trees without permission. However, midway through the proceedings, they decided not to oppose Teslow's motion for summary judgment, believing their claims were not viable. The Superior Court of the State of Alaska ruled in favor of Teslow and awarded him full attorney’s fees, finding that the Braggs' claims were frivolous and that they had filed the lawsuit with an improper purpose. The Braggs appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska held that one of the Braggs' claims was not frivolous and that the finding of an improper purpose was clearly wrong. The court vacated the award of full attorney’s fees and remanded the issue of fees for further consideration. However, the court affirmed the denial of the Braggs' motion for relief from the judgment under Alaska Civil Rule 60(b), stating that the incompetent advice of their attorney is not a ground for relief from judgment under this rule. View "Bragg v. Teslow" on Justia Law

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Owners of neighboring waterfront parcels of land disputed access to a shared cove. The shape and location of the cove’s shoreline changed over the years due to natural forces. The key to determining the neighbors' respective access to the cove depended upon the precise location where their shared boundary line intersected the mean high tide line when the property was surveyed in 1938. There was evidence that the marking monument was not placed precisely at the mean high tide line. After taking evidence, the superior court determined that the mean high tide line in 1938 was roughly 100 feet seaward of the monument. Based on that ruling, the superior court determined the parcels’ respective boundaries and apportioned access to the cove accordingly. The disappointed landowner appealed, arguing the superior court erred by essentially altering the initial survey. The Alaska Supreme Court did not concur. "Because the surveyor set the boundary of the properties in question at the mean high tide line, the court did not err by determining the boundary based on evidence of where the mean high tide line actually was when the properties were surveyed rather than relying solely on the location of the monument. And there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the court’s finding that in 1938 the mean high tide line was located well seaward of the monument." Seeing no error in the superior court’s rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed its judgment. View "Fiehler v. Mecklenburg, et al." on Justia Law

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A man and woman and the man’s grandmother decided to buy a home that they would share. They also decided that because the woman qualified for a mortgage with better terms than the others, the mortgage would be in her name. The grandmother sold her home to provide money to buy the shared home and signed a gift letter to enable the woman to qualify for a mortgage. The relationship between the man and woman deteriorated and she tried to sell the home. She refused to repay the grandmother the money the grandmother had contributed to the home purchase. The grandmother sued her. The superior court determined that the grandmother had not provided the money as a gift. The court also concluded that a written agreement the woman had signed confirmed their oral agreement to jointly buy the home and that therefore their agreement did not violate the statute of frauds. The court ordered the woman to repay the grandmother the money she had contributed to the home purchase, as well as a portion of the grandmother’s attorney’s fees. The woman appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Shields v. Clark" on Justia Law

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A mother, son, and daughter conveyed real property among themselves by competing deeds. The daughter used the property as security for two bank loans and defaulted on the second one; when the bank attempted foreclosure, the son, claiming to be the property’s owner, brought suit against the bank on a constructive notice theory, also alleging that the daughter’s deed to the property was void because of fraud. The superior court found that the bank lacked notice of the son’s alleged adverse interest and granted it summary judgment as a bona fide lender. The court also dismissed the fraud claim. The son appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the bank’s bona fide lender status, but remanded for a determination of whether the daughter acquired her deed as a result of fraud in the factum, which, if proven, would render her title and the bank’s mortgage interest void. View "Eriksson v. Eriksson Sibley et al." on Justia Law

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An Alaska superior court ordered a landowner to temporarily remove a tourist railway it had built across an easement on his land to allow the easement holder to build a paved road capable of dedication as a public right-of-way. The court required the railway, once reinstalled, to be operated in ways designed to lessen interference with use of the road. Further, the court ruled that the landowner would be liable for any increased construction and dedication costs the easement holder incurred as a result of the railway crossing. On appeal the easement holder argued the court erred by permitting the landowner to make reasonable use of land covered by the easement; allowing the landowner to build permanent improvements in the easement; limiting the road width to 60 feet when the width of the granted easement was 100 feet; permitting improvements that would allegedly interfere with the ability to dedicate the easement; and failing to account for time needed to obtain administrative approvals when setting a road construction schedule. The landowner cross-appealed, claiming it was the prevailing party entitled to attorney’s fees. Seeing no error in the superior court’s rulings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court. View "Reeves, et al. v. Godspeed Properties, LLC, et al." on Justia Law

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The dispute that arose in this case concerned an easement that lead from the Glenn Highway over residential property to a parcel of land used as a jumping-off point for a Matanuska Glacier tourism business. After years of disagreement over issues related to road maintenance, traffic, safety, and trespass on the homeowner’s property by visitors to the glacier, the homeowner erected a sign stating “No Glacier Access” near the entrance to the road. The business owner filed suit, and the homeowner counterclaimed for defamation based on inflammatory allegations made in the complaint. The superior court largely ruled in favor of the business owner, holding that he had a right to use the easement for his glacier tourism business, that his road maintenance work was reasonably necessary and did not unreasonably damage the homeowner’s property despite minor increases in the width of the road, and that the “No Glacier Access” sign had unreasonably interfered with his use of the easement. The superior court also dismissed the defamation counterclaims and awarded attorney’s fees to the business owner. Finding no reversible error in the superior court’s judgment, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment in full. View "Wayson v. Stevenson" on Justia Law

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A miner signed a 20-year lease with a corporate landowner for an easement allowing him access to his limestone-mining operation. The lease included an option to extend it for up to three additional 10-year terms as long as the miner was not in default and gave prior written notice of his intent to extend. At the close of year 19, the miner sent a check prepaying the final calendar year, plus the six weeks following the lease’s expiration date. And after the expiration date the miner sent another check prepaying the next year (year 21) without ever providing the express notice of intent to extend required by the lease. The corporation accepted both of the rent checks. Five months later the corporation sued the miner and his company, contending that he was in breach and the lease had expired. The corporation later amended its complaint to add a claim for forcible entry and detainer seeking to recover possession of the premises by court order, and shortly afterward served the miner with a notice to quit. The court held a hearing nearly 11 months later and granted the forcible-entry claim. Appealing, the miner contended the parties’ dispute was too complex to be resolved through forcible entry and detainer proceedings with limited opportunities for discovery; that the forcible entry and detainer proceeding was unlawful because at the time the claim was asserted the corporation had not yet served the notice to quit; and that the miner’s company was improperly named as a defendant and included in the forcible entry and detainer judgment. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Caswell, et al. v. AHTNA, Inc." on Justia Law