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After a mother and daughter were involved in a car accident, they (and the father) sued the employer of the other vehicle’s driver. The employer made separate offers of judgment to the mother and daughter under Alaska Civil Rule 68, which they rejected. At trial all three plaintiffs were awarded damages. With respect to the mother, the superior court awarded partial attorney’s fees to the employer under Rule 68 because the mother’s award was less than 95% of the offer made to her. Mother appealed, arguing that the offer of judgment was not a valid Rule 68 offer and that the superior court wrongly excluded certain costs that, when included, would have led to an award of more than 95% of the offer of judgment. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found the offer of judgment was valid and that the court did not err in excluding costs not covered by Alaska Civil Rule 79 when comparing the offer to the mother’s recovery. View "Whittenton v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc." on Justia Law

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Mariam Bibi and Javed Raja married and later bought a home in Anchorage with loans from IndyMac Bank, F.S.B. (IndyMac). IndyMac’s loans were secured by deeds of trust on their home. The couple later received an additional loan of around $10,000 from Kevin Elfrink. Over the course of six years, the couple made irregular payments, increased the loan balance three times until it exceeded $25,000, and eventually defaulted. Elfrink initiated foreclosure proceedings and then bought the house at his own foreclosure sale by credit-bidding all money he asserted was due to him under the modified promissory note, satisfying the couple’s debt to him. Following the foreclosure, Elfrink filed a complaint against Bibi and Raja for forcible entry and detainer to remove them from the home. Bibi moved out of her home but filed a counterclaim for usury, quiet title and possession, and surplus proceeds from the foreclosure sale. Raja confessed judgment to his removal from the home. As the lawsuit proceeded, IndyMac initiated a foreclosure on its senior deed of trust and Elfrink bought the house for a second time at IndyMac’s foreclosure sale. The superior court ultimately denied Bibi’s usury claim, determining that Bibi had no standing, her claim was time barred, and in any event, the loan did not violate Alaska’s usury statute because the funding fee was not interest and the usury statute did not apply once the loan’s principal rose over $25,000. The superior court also denied Bibi’s claim for title, ruling that the foreclosure statutes gave Elfrink clear title. Bibi appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court held that: (1) Bibi has standing; (2) it was error for the superior court to deny Bibi’s usury claim because the funding fee was disguised interest and violated the usury statute, which applied to at least the initial period of the loan’s life; and (3) the superior court correctly denied Bibi’s claim for title and possession of her prior home because IndyMac’s foreclosure extinguished her claim to the property. View "Bibi v. Elfrink" on Justia Law

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The superior court granted joint legal and primary physical custody of a child to his maternal grandmother and step-grandfather. The child’s mother, who retained joint legal custody and visitation rights, appealed, arguing: (1) she was entitled to court-appointed counsel during the proceedings; (2) the order violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to direct the upbringing and education of her child; and (3) the court erred in its custody determination. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found that because the mother provided no legal basis for her claim to court-appointed counsel, the trial court did not err in denying that request. Because the court applied the correct constitutional and legal standard for third-party custody, its factual findings were not clearly erroneous, and its exercise of discretion was not unreasonable, the Supreme Court affirmed the court’s order awarding joint legal and primary physical custody of the child to the grandparents. View "Dara v. Gish" on Justia Law

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In November 1999, Alaska filed a felony information charging Sean Wright with sexually abusing two young girls. Wright was not arrested or indicted on these charges until almost five years later. He moved to dismiss the charges, claiming, among other reasons, that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. The superior court denied this motion. On appeal, the court of appeals ordered a reassessment of Wright’s claim. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded speedy trial time begins to run from the filing of an information, and that that the superior court did not err in attributing primary responsibility for the delay to Wright. View "Alaska v. Wright" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Corrections Officer Nelson Robinson was supervising a prison module of about 50 inmates at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, including Radenko Jovanov and Alando Modeste. Modeste approached Jovanov while he was in line for the telephone, and he told Jovanov that he wanted them to request placement in separate modules because Modeste was related by marriage to the victim of Jovanov’s crime. Modeste then punched Jovanov on the left side of the head and pushed his head into the wall, requiring Jovanov to obtain medical treatment for his injuries. Jovanov sued the Department of Corrections (DOC), Officer Robinson, and Modeste for his injuries, alleging: (1) the assault was foreseeable and therefore DOC should have prevented it; (2) Officer Robinson failed to respond promptly to the argument and prevent further injury to Jovanov; and (3) DOC was negligent in understaffing the prison unit and placing the officer’s desk out of view of the telephone. DOC counterclaimed for the cost of the medical treatment Jovanov received. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of Jovanov against Modeste on the issue of liability, and in favor of DOC’s counterclaim for medical costs. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of DOC on Jovanov’s negligence claims against it; the assault was not foreseeable, and therefore DOC cannot be negligent on these grounds. Further, DOC’s staffing decisions and its placement of the guard’s duty station were immune policy decisions that could not form the basis of a negligence claim. The Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of DOC on its counterclaim against Jovanov for the cost of medical care provided to him and remand for further proceedings. The Court also remanded for further proceedings regarding Jovanov’s negligence claim against Modeste. View "Jovanov v. Dept. of Corrections" 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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Two families shared a duplex in Ketchikan. Brian Calvin and his wife and child lived in the upper unit; Tracy Harrell, her husband, Klyn Kloxin, and her mother, Winnie Sue Willis, lived in the bottom unit. In 2013, the duplex was destroyed by fire, and Willis was killed. Harrell concluded the cause of the fire was the upper unit's electric fish smoker, and sued their neighbors above asserting claims for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The superior court concluded that their suit was barred by two-year statutes of limitations and granted summary judgment for the neighbor. The court also awarded the neighbor attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 82 and entered judgment jointly and severally against the estate and the two individuals. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the statutes of limitations were tolled by the "discovery rule." They also argued the court abused its discretion in assessing attorney’s fees against them as individuals and in making them jointly and severally liable for the judgment. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court properly applied the statutes of limitations and that it did not abuse its discretion in its attorney’s fees award. View "Harrell v. Calvin" on Justia Law

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Julia M. and Timothy W. married in 2005 and had three children, born in 2006, 2008, and 2010. The couple separated in 2011 and in April 2012 Julia filed for divorce. Julia and Timothy entered into an agreement concerning custody, visitation, and support for their children. The agreement lasted through the fall; in December Timothy requested that Julia’s sole legal custody and primary physical custody be modified. The trial court denied that request because there had been no material change in circumstances. Timothy also sought to have his child support reduced or eliminated. Julia in turn requested that the court impute income to Timothy and increase his child support. Both parties requested changes to Timothy’s visitation schedule. Timothy maintained the trial court was biased against him, and challenged the court’s: (1) denial of his judicial recusal motion; (2) decision to keep certain hearings open to the public; (3) sua sponte admission of evidence during its oral decision on the record; and (4) findings that the father had a history of domestic violence against a “domestic living partner” requiring the court to impose limitations on his visitation. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court as to the first three matters, but vacated the visitation order and remanded for further proceedings, specifically, for findings on whether the acts of domestic violence occurred while a domestic living partnership was in effect. View "Timothy W. v. Julia M." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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An insured sued her auto insurer and one of its adjusters, alleging that the insurer breached the insurance contract and committed tortious bad faith by withholding underinsured motorist benefits and that the adjuster negligently handled her claim for those benefits. The insurer then paid all available underinsured motorist benefits to the insured, including interest. The insured continued her tort claims, alleging additional financial and emotional harm from the delayed benefits payment. The insured proposed a jury instruction addressing the effect of the insurer’s belated payment, but the superior court rejected that instruction. After trial the jury determined that: (1) the insurer had acted in bad faith, but its conduct was not a substantial factor in causing the insured’s asserted harm; and (2) the adjuster had not been negligent. The superior court subsequently ordered the jury to award the insured nominal damages. The jury then awarded the insured $2 in nominal damages and later awarded $450,000 in punitive damages. The superior court awarded the insured prevailing party costs and attorney’s fees against the insurer. The court also awarded the adjuster prevailing party attorney’s fees against the insured. The court rejected the insured’s request that judgment against the insurer be entered nunc pro tunc to the date of the jury verdict so that post-judgment interest on the punitive damages award would start earlier. The insurer appealed the nominal and punitive damages awards and the prevailing party determination. The insured cross-appealed the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award, the jury’s failure to award compensatory damages, the court’s rejection of the insured’s proposed jury instruction, and the court’s refusal to enter judgment effective from the jury verdict date. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed in all respects save the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award: that was remanded for further proceedings. View "Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Gonzalez" on Justia Law

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In the course of the 2016 budgetary process, the Alaska legislature appropriated a sum of money for dividend distributions. But the governor vetoed about half of the appropriation, and the legislature did not override the veto. One current and two former legislators later sued to effectively set aside the governor’s veto. The thrust of their argument was that a 1976 constitutional amendment creating the Alaska Permanent Fund gave the legislature constitutional authority to pass laws dedicating use of Permanent Fund income without need for annual appropriations and, therefore, not subject to annual gubernatorial veto. The legislators argued that the longstanding dividend program was a law exempt from the anti-dedication clause. The superior court ruled against the legislators, concluding the legislature’s actual use of the income remained subject to normal appropriation and veto budgetary processes. The narrow question this case presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review was whether the 1976 amendment to the Alaska Constitution exempted the legislature’s use of Permanent Fund income from the Constitution’s anti-dedication clause. The Court concluded "no" — the 1976 amendment did not exempt the legislature’s use of Permanent Fund income from the Constitution’s anti-dedication clause. Although the superior court did not reach this question, the court’s ultimate conclusion nevertheless was correct: the legislature’s use of Permanent Fund income is subject to normal appropriation and veto budgetary processes. View "Wielechowski v. Alaska" on Justia Law