Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Two business owners executed a series of transactions to sell a regional airline business. Within two years of the sale, one of the buyer-controlled business entities declared bankruptcy, and the seller commenced litigation to resolve disputes over their agreements. The parties settled before trial. But another buyer-controlled entity later defaulted and declared bankruptcy, and the seller reinitiated litigation. The issue presented to the Alaska Supreme Court was the extent to which the buyers personally guaranteed the obligations of the second bankrupt entity. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the seller and held the buyers personally liable for those obligations. The Supreme Court held that whether the parties intended the buyers to personally guarantee the bankrupt entity’s obligations was a disputed material fact, making the issue inappropriate for summary judgment. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Beardsley v. Jacobsen" on Justia Law

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Russell Baker was hired by Federal Express Corporation (FedEx) as a pilot in June 2006. Employment agreements between FedEx and its pilots are established via collective bargaining with a union, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA). During the relevant period of Baker’s employment, ALPA’s agreement with FedEx offered pilots on foreign duty assignments options to finance either relocation housing or their commute. Pilots based in Hong Kong could elect an “enhanced” relocation package instead of commuting. Pilots choosing that package had 18 months to complete their relocation, but were obligated to reimburse FedEx if they did not actually relocate. FedEx retained the right to request documentation establishing that relocation had actually occurred, including “verification of the permanent relocation of a pilot’s spouse, and/or dependent children under the age of 18 years, if applicable.” Baker would be fired by FedEx after he collected a relocation allowance based on misleading statements that his spouse had relocated with him. While his employment termination proceedings were ongoing, he filed complaints with the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights, contending FedEx engaged in marital status discrimination by requiring married pilots to relocate their spouses as a condition of the relocation allowance, and FedEx retaliated against him for filing the first complaint. The Commission concluded that there was substantial evidence of illegal discrimination, but exercised its statutory discretion to dismiss the complaint instead of bringing an enforcement action. The Commission also dismissed his second complaint, concluding that there was not substantial evidence of retaliation. Baker appealed the Commission’s decisions to the superior court, which affirmed the decisions. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission did not abuse its substantial discretion by declining to prosecute the discrimination complaint, and did not err by concluding that the employer did not retaliate against the pilot after he filed his discrimination complaint. View "Baker v. Alaska Commission for Human Rights (Federal Express Corp.)" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Joshua Martinez was driving a pickup truck when he lost control and crashed into a cabin, injuring the cabin owner Charles Burnett, and causing damage, including a spill of heating fuel. Burnett asked Martinez's insurance company, Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO) to pay him to do the cleanup himself, but the insurance company refused because the cabin owner did not have the qualifications required by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Cleanup stalled for over a year while the effects of the spill on the property and the owner’s health allegedly worsened. Martinez and the truck’s owner (his father) Robert Martinez, settled with the Burnett for the maximum limits of the insurance policy, but Burnett sought additional damages from the insurance company for its failure to promptly clean up the property. Following summary judgment for the insurance company and a reversal and remand by the Alaska Supreme Court, the superior court held an evidentiary hearing to decide whether the insurance company had assumed a duty to the cabin owner independent of the duty it owed its insureds. The superior court found there was no such duty. Burnett and the insureds appeal. Burnett contended the superior court erred by finding no actionable duty, and that it deprived him of due process by failing to consider his arguments before entering proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and awarding attorney’s fees. The insureds argued the superior court erred by deciding that they were precluded from further participation in the litigation once they entered into a settlement and were voluntarily dismissed from the case. The Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not clearly err in its findings of fact about the existence of an independent duty and that it did not violate Burnett’s due process rights. The Court also concluded the insureds were no longer parties to the case at the time they sought to renew their participation in it, and their arguments that they were entitled to either joinder or intervention were waived for lack of briefing. View "Martinez v. Government Employees Insurance Company, et al." on Justia Law

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Anticipating a shortfall of revenue from previously enacted tax incentives, the 30th Alaska State Legislature attempted to offset future fiscal unpredictability by authorizing a discounted buyback of tax credits financed by bonds without pledging the “full faith and credit” of the State. Without a vote of the people, the legislature created a public corporation capable of borrowing up to $1 billion through the issuance of subject-to-appropriation bonds to purchase outstanding oil and gas exploration tax credits, with bondholders to be reimbursed solely at the discretion of future legislatures through appropriations to the new public corporation. A taxpayer filed suit, alleging, inter alia, that the legislature violated the Alaska Constitution’s state debt limitation. The superior court granted the State’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the legislation did not create “debt” for purposes of the constitutional limitation. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding that this financing scheme, even if unforeseeable in the mid-twentieth century, was the kind of constitutional “debt” that the framers sought to prohibit under article IX, section 8 of the Alaska Constitution. The Supreme Court reversed the superior court's decision granting the State's motion to dismiss, and affirmed the superior court’s decision rejecting the State’s arguments under section 11. View "Forrer v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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The State of Alaska selected the land at issue in this appeal in 1989 under an Alaska Statehood Act provision allowing State selections of federal lands for community centers and recreational areas. In the 1990s, in order to settle litigation about the State’s management of lands granted to Alaska under the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act (Mental Health Act), the State agreed to create a mental health trust. There were extensive negotiations over which lands would be included in this trust. In the course of these negotiations, the State agreed that the parcel selected under the Statehood Act would not be conveyed to the mental health trust, but rather would be classified and managed by the State as wildlife habitat. For years after this settlement, the State managed the parcel as wildlife habitat. In 2009 the State and the federal government executed an agreement finalizing the Mental Health Act selections. One of the terms of the agreement was that the parcel selected under the Statehood Act would be converted to a Mental Health Act selection. The parcel was conveyed by the federal government to the State, and the State subsequently conveyed the parcel to the mental health trust. A lawsuit was filed against the State to invalidate the transfer of the parcel to the mental health trust, based primarily on the arguments that the transaction violated contractual and statutory terms of the earlier mental health trust settlement and violated the constitutional public notice requirement for disposing of an interest in State land. The superior court ruled for the State, and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court determined the State violated the public notice clause of the Alaska Constitution by disposing of an interest in state land without providing the public prior notice. Further, the Court held the State's exchange of interests in the parcel was inconsistent with House Bill 201 (1994). The matter was therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Supreme Court remanded for the superior court to "fashion a remedy" consistent withe the Supreme Court's opinion. View "Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Inc., v. Alaska, Department of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

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The superior court found that a father had a history of committing domestic violence, and it therefore established benchmarks for him to meet before he could begin supervised visitation with his children. The father did not appeal that decision. He nonetheless sought to relitigate the domestic violence finding in subsequent proceedings, but the superior court ruled that relitigation of the issue was barred by collateral estoppel. Following an extended evidentiary hearing, the superior court found that the father had met the benchmarks set by the earlier order and conditionally granted his request that he be allowed to begin supervised visitation. But the superior court also said that because of the “challenging” nature of the case it could not approve a visitation plan without more detail, such as the identity of individuals willing to act as counselors and visitation coordinators and how the parties would pay for their services. The father appealed the superior court’s order granting in part his motion for supervised visitation, including its application of collateral estoppel to the earlier finding of domestic violence. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court did not abuse its broad discretion or otherwise err in this custody case, it affirmed the visitation order. View "Robert A. v. Tatiana D." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Mick and Cecilia Manns made unsuccessful applications for preference rights to purchase certain Alaska State land. The Mannses argued they were entitled to a preference right under AS 38.05.035(f) based on their business use of the land beginning in the mid­ 1970s. But this statute required the Mannses to establish business use beginning at least five years prior to State selection; in this case, the State selection occurred in 1972. The statute also required the Mannses to show some income reliance on the land for the five years preceding their application, but the Mannses did not submit any such evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision affirming the decision of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to deny the Mannses’ application. View "Manns v. Alaska, Dept. of Nat. Rec., Div. of Mining, Land & Water" on Justia Law

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In late 2014 Andy James was working in Deadhorse for Northern Construction & Maintenance, LLC, a company owned by John Ellsworth and members of his family. Ellsworth also owned Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc. Alaska Frontier had some kind of business relationship with Nanuq, Inc. In late December Northern Construction sent James from his usual work assignment to work in some capacity in connection with an ice road being constructed and maintained for Caelus Energy Alaska, LLC. James was instructed to work at the direction of Scott Pleas. Despite dangerous blizzard conditions, Pleas directed James to accompany another worker, Johann Willrich, to check fuel levels on equipment idling outside; James objected due to the weather, but was threatened with the loss of his job if he did not follow the direction. James complied; he climbed a large grader to fuel it, but a wind gust blew him off, resulting in shoulder and spinal injuries. James filed personal injury lawsuits, which were consolidated, against the companies. The companies sought and obtained summary judgment rulings that they had statutory employer immunity from the injury claims under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision. James appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because numerous issues of material fact made it impossible to determine whether the companies were entitled to judgment as a matter of law that they were immune from liability under the Act, summary judgment was reversed, the judgment against James vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "James v. Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc." on Justia Law

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A man appealed superior court orders authorizing his hospitalization for evaluation, his 30-day commitment, and the involuntary administration of psychotropic medication. He argued the superior court’s failure to conduct a screening investigation was an error that required vacation of the evaluation order and the commitment and medication orders that followed it. He also specifically challenged the commitment order, claiming that the court erred by relying on facts not in evidence and by finding clear and convincing evidence that he was gravely disabled and that commitment was the least restrictive alternative. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded: (1) that failing to perform a screening investigation was error, but the error was harmless because the court made findings supported by clear and convincing evidence when ordering a 30-day commitment; (2) it was also harmless error to rely to any extent on facts not in evidence because there was sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that the respondent was gravely disabled; (3) the superior court did not err when it found by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent was gravely disabled and that commitment was the least restrictive alternative, or when it granted the petition for involuntary hospitalization; and (4) the superior court did not err by finding that medication was in the respondent’s best interests and that there was no less intrusive alternative, or by granting the petition for its involuntary administration. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Rabi R." on Justia Law

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In October 2017 the Alaska Trust Land Office (Land Office) issued a best interest decision in favor of selling five lots of land owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust to Louis and Stacy Oliva. The Olivas' neighbors, Jeffrey and Bonnie West, submitted late comments opposing the sale. The Land Office accepted those comments as a request for reconsideration, but it ultimately denied the Wests' request and proceeded with the sale. The Wests appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the best interest decision. On appeal, the Wests argued the sale was not in the Trust’s best interest, the Land Office violated a number of statutes and regulations, and the agency’s public notice regulation was invalid. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Wests' first argument lacked merit, and the remaining issues were waived for various reasons. The Court therefore affirmed the best interest decision. View "West v. Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority" on Justia Law