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In three criminal cases consolidated for appeal, each defendant sought to introduce expert testimony by a polygraph examiner that the defendant was truthful when he made exculpatory statements relating to the charges against him during a polygraph examination conducted using the “comparison question technique” (CQT). In two of the cases, the superior courts found that testimony based on a CQT polygraph examination satisfied the requirements for scientific evidence under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) and Alaska v. Coon, 974 P.2d 386 (Alaska 1999). In the third case, the superior court reached the opposite conclusion and found the evidence inadmissible. The issue these cases presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review centered on the appellate standard of review for rulings on the admissibility of scientific evidence and to determine the admissibility of CQT polygraph evidence. The Court concluded that appellate review of Daubert/Coon determinations should be conducted under a hybrid standard: the superior court’s preliminary factual determinations should be reviewed for clear error; based on those findings and the evidence available, whether a particular scientific theory or technique has been shown to be “scientifically valid” under Daubert and Coon is a question of law to which the Court applies its independent judgment; and where proposed scientific evidence passes muster under that standard, the superior court’s case-specific determinations and further evidentiary rulings are reviewed for abuse of discretion. Applying this standard here, the Supreme Court concluded that CQT polygraph evidence had not been shown to be sufficiently reliable to satisfy the Daubert/Coon standard. View "Alaska v. Sharpe" on Justia Law

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An Alaskan superior court denied a father’s motion to modify custody because it did not believe it had subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) to modify an Oregon custody order. The father appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing arguing that the superior court erred in failing to consider the controlling statute that governs the court’s jurisdiction to modify an out-of-state order. The father also appeals an order imposing sanctions, including costs and attorney’s fees. The Supreme Court agreed that the controlling statute, AS 25.30.320, allowed the superior court to modify an out-of-state custody order if it “determines that neither the child, nor a parent, nor a person acting as a parent presently resides in the other state.” It did not appear from the record that the superior court considered this subsection of the statute. The Court therefore vacated the superior court’s order denying the motion to modify for lack of jurisdiction. And because the sanctions order was premised on the court’s jurisdictional ruling, it too was vacated. View "Fox v. Grace" on Justia Law

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A psychologist at a mental health clinic petitioned to have a patient involuntarily hospitalized. The superior court held a hearing on the petition at which only the psychologist gave substantive testimony. The court granted the petition, and the patient was hospitalized. The patient appealed the trial court’s denial of her motion to vacate the involuntary hospitalization order. Because the superior court failed to conduct a screening investigation that met statutory requirements, and because this failure was not harmless error, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s denial of the patient’s motion to vacate. View "In Re Hospitalization of Paige M." on Justia Law

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Christopher Hess was convicted by jury of second and third degree assault. He appealed, arguing that the superior court committed plain error by not addressing improper statements in the prosecutor’s closing arguments. The court of appeals affirmed Hess’s convictions and held that, although some of the prosecutor’s statements were improper, they did not undermine the trial’s fundamental fairness. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the comments at issue here "affected important rights that could affect the fundamental fairness of the proceeding. The prosecutor suggested that the jury should consider his personal opinion of defense attorneys and Hess’s defense strategy. The prosecutor’s attack on the defense strategy and defense counsel was inappropriate, the comments were of no probative value, and they created a high potential for unfair prejudice." Because these statements were plain error, the Supreme Court reversed Hess' convictions and remanded for a new trial. View "Hess v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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After a bench trial, the superior court determined that a pilot who flew seasonally for a remote wilderness lodge, was a professional employee and therefore subject to an exemption from the overtime requirements of the Alaska Wage and Hour Act. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed that decision on appeal, holding that the pilot was not exempt, and remanded the case for a determination of the overtime hours actually worked. On remand the superior court framed the issue as whether the pilot, during his time at the lodge, was “engaged to wait or waiting to be engaged.” The superior court applied a multi-factor test and found that the pilot was “waiting to be engaged” and therefore was not entitled to overtime compensation for hours other than those he spent actually performing duties for his employer. The court found that the pilot had worked 6.4 hours of unpaid overtime but declined to award liquidated damages, finding that an exception to the liquidated damages statute applied because the lodge had acted reasonably and in good faith. The court also declined to award attorney’s fees to the lodge despite the fact that it had bettered the terms of several offers of judgment. Both parties appealed. The Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in its legal analysis when determining whether the pilot was entitled to overtime compensation. Furthermore, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision not to award attorney’s fees to the employer. But because the superior court made no findings about the lodge’s subjective good faith, the case was remanded for further consideration of liquidated damages and whether the good-faith exception applied. View "Moody v. Royal Wolf Lodge" on Justia Law

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A man sued his neighbors, alleging that an access road on their property caused flooding on his property. After he reached a settlement with the neighbors, the man stipulated to a dismissal of his claims with prejudice. Three years later the man again sued the neighbors as well as the Municipality of Anchorage, alleging that the flooding had continued and asserting new claims of nuisance, trespass, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract. The superior court granted summary judgment for the Municipality on the basis of either collateral estoppel or res judicata. The man appealed; the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Strong v. Williams" on Justia Law

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A divorced mother and father shared joint legal custody of their son. The mother moved for a modification of legal custody, alleging that the father was failing to cooperate on important issues such as counseling, the selection of a middle school, and medical care; she also moved for a declaration that the parents did not have to mediate their custody disputes before filing a modification motion, as required by their custody agreement. The superior court denied the request for declaratory relief and denied the motion for modification of custody without a hearing. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that the motion for declaratory relief was properly denied, as neither party was seeking to enforce the mediation provision and it presented no actual controversy. However, the Court concluded the mother’s allegations in her motion to modify legal custody made a prima facie showing that the parents’ lack of cooperation was serious enough to negatively affect the child’s well-being, and that the mother was therefore entitled to an evidentiary hearing on modification. The trial court’s order was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Edith A. v. Jonah A." on Justia Law

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A mother appealed an order modifying custody, which awarded sole legal and physical custody of her three children to the father and limited her to supervised visitation pending the children’s full engagement in therapy. The mother argued the father failed to demonstrate a change in circumstances that would justify a modification of custody and that the resulting modification was not in the children’s best interests. After review of the trial court record, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that the mother’s interference with the children’s therapy amounted to a change in circumstances and that the children’s best interests were served by an award of sole legal and physical custody to the father while therapy took hold. View "Georgette S.B. v. Scott B." on Justia Law

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Linda and David Fletcher were married in 1990. They had three children, one of whom was a minor at the time of their 2015 divorce trial. Linda twice petitioned for domestic violence protective orders against David during the marriage, first in 2001 and again in 2010. David moved out of the marital home and into his truck around the time Linda filed the second petition in February 2010. Although David came to the house to pick up his mail, see the children, and do repair and improvement projects, he did not live or sleep in the house again. During the marriage Linda worked in the legal administrative field, and David worked as a union electrical contractor and an electrician. Linda handled the parties’ finances. They ceased maintaining a joint bank account a couple of years into the marriage, and in 2001 separately filed bankruptcy declarations “due to debts arising from David’s business.” Linda paid the family’s monthly expenses and invoiced David each month for his share of the costs to feed, clothe, and house the family. She also paid and invoiced David for his expenses, including car insurance. Linda testified that in 2010, after David moved out of the marital home, they agreed he would pay $1,200 per month for his share of the family expenses. David made these payments sporadically and in installments until 2012, when he instead “made multiple direct and indirect payments to Linda and/or to/for the children.” The parties agreed the home was marital property. David was diagnosed with type II diabetes in 1992; he suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. He had surgery related to the first heart attack. David took between 17 and 20 medications daily. Until 2007 the family had health insurance through Linda’s employer. Linda then switched the children’s healthcare and dropped David from her employer’s insurance plan. David had access to health insurance through his union, but he could not rely on coverage because he was not always able to maintain the required minimum number of hours worked each week. According to one of David’s attorneys, David would qualify for Medicare in January 2017, two years after trial. The primary issues in this divorce case were whether the superior court abused its discretion by determining the parties’ separation date and erred by dividing the marital estate 50/50. The Alaska Supreme Court answered “no” to the former and “yes” to the latter. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Fletcher v. Fletcher" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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The superior court terminated a father’s parental rights to his son, finding that the child was in need of aid because of abandonment, neglect, and the father’s incarceration and that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had satisfied its statutory obligation to make reasonable efforts to reunify parent and child. The father appealed, arguing these findings were unsupported by the evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the father: the record showed he initiated efforts to visit the child, who was already in OCS custody, as soon as he learned of his possible paternity; that during the father’s subsequent incarceration he had visitation as often as OCS was able to provide it; and that OCS never created a case plan to direct the father’s efforts toward reunification. The Supreme Court concluded it was clear error to find that the child was in need of aid and that OCS made reasonable efforts toward reunification, and reversed the termination decision. View "Duke S. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law