Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries
Teck American, Inc., et al. v. Valhalla Mining, LLC, et al.
After a mining company abandoned its mining claims, the claims were located and recorded by a second mining company, which also abandoned the claims. After the second company abandoned the claims, the first company attempted to cure its earlier abandonment. The same year that the first company filed to cure its abandonment, a third mining company attempted to locate and record ownership of some of the same claims. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) refused to issue permits to the third company, reasoning that the first one had validly cured its abandonment of its claims before the third company located the claims. After exhausting its administrative remedies, the third company appealed DNR’s decision. The superior court reversed DNR’s decision. Because DNR’s interpretation of the controlling statute was reasonable, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court decision and affirmed DNR’s decision. View "Teck American, Inc., et al. v. Valhalla Mining, LLC, et al." on Justia Law
AVCG, LLC v. Alaska Department of Natural Resources
Alaska Venture Capital Group, LLC (AVCG) owned interests in oil and gas leases on state lands. AVCG sought the State’s approval to create overriding royalty interests on the leases. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas denied AVCG’s requests, explaining that the proposed royalty burdens jeopardized the State’s interest in sustained oil and gas development. AVCG appealed. Five years later the DNR Commissioner affirmed. The superior court then affirmed the Commissioner’s decisions. AVCG appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the decisions improperly adopted a new regulation that did not undergo the rulemaking procedures of Alaska’s Administrative Procedure Act (APA). AVCG maintained that DNR’s reliance on specific factors - in particular, the fact that the proposed ORRIs would create a total royalty burden of over 20% on the leases - amounted to adopting a regulation. AVCG also argued that the decisions lacked a reasonable basis in fact and law and that, for some of its leases, no agency approval was required at all. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, and rejected AVCG's constitutional claim: that delay and an "ad hoc" decision-making process violated its procedural due process rights. View "AVCG, LLC v. Alaska Department of Natural Resources" on Justia Law
M.T. (Mother) v. State of Alaska DHSS, OCS
Mother Miranda T. appealed the superior court’s entry of a disposition order in child in need of aid (CINA) proceedings. She contended the court erred by moving forward with an adjudication hearing without having considered her request for a review hearing on a previously stipulated temporary custody and placement arrangement. She contended the court also erred by later refusing to enforce two subsequent agreements she had reached with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) about placements for her daughter. Furthermore, Mother contended the evidence did not support the disposition order’s predicate findings that (1) OCS had made sufficiently active efforts to reunify the family and (2) removal of the daughter from the family home was necessary to avoid harm to her. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court rejected the mother’s claims of error and affirmed the superior court’s disposition order. View "M.T. (Mother) v. State of Alaska DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law
In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Tonja P.
A woman who suffered from schizophrenia appealed court orders authorizing her involuntary commitment and administration of psychotropic medication. She argued the superior court erred by relying on a cursory report from the court visitor and by failing to make specific findings that involuntary medication was in her best interests. She also contended it was error to commit her to a psychiatric hospital instead of to a less restrictive facility. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s orders. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of: Tonja P." on Justia Law
Christy v. Conrad
In this case, the superior court granted visitation to grandparents after finding that the children enjoyed a positive relationship “typical of a grandparent-child relationship” and that the parents’ motive for cutting off contact with the grandparents was spiteful. To this, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the court’s ruling, finding the parents’ motive for ending visitation did not show that the lack of visitation was detrimental to the children. "And the mere fact that children enjoy a positive or typical relationship with their grandparents does not amount to clear and convincing evidence that ending visitation is detrimental to the children. Absent such evidence, it is error to order visitation that a fit parent does not wish to allow." View "Christy v. Conrad" on Justia Law
Posted in: Family Law
Blythe P. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS
Blythe and Danny were the parents of three-year-old Gene. Blythe had two other children, Gene’s half siblings, with a man named Timothy. Timothy has custody of those other children; they lived with him and his parents, Robert and Vivian. In January 2021, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) filed a non-emergency petition to adjudicate Gene a child in need of aid due to concerns about Blythe’s and Danny’s mental health and substance abuse. Later that month OCS removed Gene from his parents and placed him with Robert and Vivian. Robert and Vivian considered themselves Gene’s grandparents, though they were not related to him by blood or marriage. When OCS decides to transfer a child in its custody from one out-of-home placement to another, a party may seek judicial review of that decision. According to statute, the superior court shall deny the proposed transfer if the party “prove[s] by clear and convincing evidence that the transfer would be contrary to the best interests of the child.” OCS argued that in some circumstances the party challenging a proposed transfer must also show it was an abuse of discretion, such as when OCS seeks to transfer the child to a statutorily preferred placement or due to licensing concerns with the existing placement. Because there was no basis in statutory text or legislative history to supplant the standard of review chosen by the legislature with a standard more deferential to OCS, the Alaska Supreme Court declined to do so. And because the Court mistakenly applied abuse of discretion review in State, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services v. Zander B., 474 P.3d 1153 (Alaska 2020), it overruled that decision to the extent it was inconsistent with the opinion here. View "Blythe P. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law
Guilford v. Weidner Investment Services, Inc., et al.
A landlord tried to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent. The tenant counterclaimed under Alaska’s Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA), seeking damages for a variety of alleged harms: retaliatory eviction; failure to return her security deposit; intentional misrepresentation of certain fees; and personal injury and emotional distress caused by mold in the apartment, which the tenant alleged was a violation of the landlord’s duty under URLTA to maintain fit premises. The eviction was denied; the court entered summary judgment against the tenant’s damages claim for personal injury on the ground that the tenant failed to provide expert opinion evidence supporting the link between mold exposure and her health problems. After trial, a jury awarded the tenant modest damages for misrepresentation and for emotional distress caused by mold exposure. The jury found in the landlord’s favor on the retaliatory eviction and security deposit claims. The superior court awarded the tenant partial attorney’s fees, using a “blended analysis” that relied on both Alaska Civil Rule 82 and on URLTA’s provision for full reasonable fees and then discounting the award due to the tenant’s limited success. The tenant appealed the grant of summary judgment on her personal injury claim and the attorney’s fees calculation. The landlord cross-appealed, arguing the superior court erred in a number of its evidentiary decisions, by permitting the tenant to recover emotional distress damages for a breach of URLTA’s duty to maintain fit premises, and by awarding the tenant attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. After its review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s evidentiary rulings. It also affirmed its decision to permit recovery of emotional distress damages caused by violations of the duty to maintain fit premises. But the Court reversed summary judgment against the tenant’s personal injury claim. Medical records in which the tenant’s treating physician suggested that mold exposure may have been the cause of her health problems amount to sufficient expert medical opinion that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the tenant as the non-moving party, created a genuine issue of material fact that had to be resolved at trial. View "Guilford v. Weidner Investment Services, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
Penn P. Jr. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc.Srvs
The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a newborn child due to concerns about the parents’ drug use and the father’s history of sexual abuse. The mother later voluntarily relinquished her parental rights, and after a trial, the superior court terminated the father’s rights. The father appealed the termination order, arguing: (1) the order improperly relied on drug-treatment records that were not admitted at trial; and (2) in proposing a new process to govern a parent’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, he established a prima facie case of ineffective assistance and the Alaska Supreme Court should remand the case to the superior court for an evidentiary hearing. The Supreme Court was not convinced by either argument, and affirmed the termination order because relying on the unadmitted drug-treatment records was harmless error and because the father did not show he received ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the Court took the opportunity to clarify its approach to ineffective assistance claims in child in need of aid (CINA) cases. View "Penn P. Jr. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc.Srvs" on Justia Law
Alaska Division of Elections v. Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, ex rel. B.L.
A special election was scheduled to fill Alaska’s vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Due to time constraints the election was conducted entirely by mail. The Division of Elections created an online ballot delivery system to accommodate visually impaired Alaskans, but the system required voters to print out their ballots and return them by mail or fax or at a drop-off location. An organization advocating for the rights of visually impaired Alaskans sued the Division, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would prevent the Division from certifying the election results until visually impaired voters were able to participate independently. The superior court granted the preliminary injunction. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court erred in its analysis of the tests for granting a preliminary injunction, it vacated the order on June 11, 2022. This opinion explained the Supreme Court's reasoning. View "Alaska Division of Elections v. Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, ex rel. B.L." on Justia Law
Reed S. v. Alaska Department of Health & Social Services
A child was severely injured while in his father’s care. The father did not immediately seek medical help and gave conflicting explanations of how his son’s injury occurred. An Alaska superior court found probable cause to believe that the child was in need of aid, limited the father’s contact with the child and mother, and awarded the mother custody. A few months later the father was arrested outside the family home, and evidence suggested that the mother had allowed contact between him and their son in violation of military and civil no-contact orders. The superior court adjudicated the boy as a child in need of aid based on the actions of both parents. The parents separately appealed the adjudication. But after the appeals were filed, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) informed the superior court that the child could safely be returned to his parents’ care, and the superior court closed the case. On appeal the parents argue that their appeals were mooted by the superior court’s dismissal of OCS’s case and that the Alaska Supreme Court should decline to hear the appeals and vacate the adjudication order to avoid the potential for collateral consequences. In the alternative, they argued that if this case was heard on the merits the Supreme Court should find that the superior court erred in adjudicating their son as a child in need of aid. The Court concluded it should hear the appeals on the merits, and therefore did not vacate the adjudication order. On the merits, the Supreme Court affirmed the order. View "Reed S. v. Alaska Department of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law