Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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For several years two condominium owners withheld a portion of their dues in protest. Then beginning in 2014, they sent the condominium association several payments, with instructions to apply them to recent debts and current dues. In this appeal, the owners argued they accrued no debts within the statute of limitations because their payment directives were binding. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court’s conclusion that these payment directives were not effective because the governing declaration allowed the association to apply any payments to “the oldest balance due.” The Court affirmed the trial court in all other respects. View "Black v. Whitestone Estates Condominium HOA, et al." on Justia Law

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A father appealed a superior court’s denial of his motion to modify child support, arguing his house arrest while awaiting trial on federal charges should have been considered involuntary unemployment for purposes of calculating child support. He also argued remand is necessary for an evidentiary hearing and for the superior court to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the father made a prima facie showing of a substantial change in circumstances that would entitle him to an evidentiary hearing, the case was remanded to the superior court to conduct an evidentiary hearing. View "Schwier v. Schwier" on Justia Law

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After an Anchorage strip club applied to have its liquor license renewed the Alcohol and Beverage Control Board received multiple objections to the renewal. Former employees, the Department of Labor, and the Municipality of Anchorage each alleged wage law violations, untrustworthy management, and unsafe policies. After three hearings before the Board and one before an administrative law judge, the Board denied renewal because it was not in the public interest. The club appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the Board’s decision. The club appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing it was unreasonable to find that renewal was not in the public interest and that the club was denied due process in the administrative proceeding. After review, the Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court’s decision to uphold the Board’s determination. View "Fantasies on 5th Avenue, LLC. v. Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board" on Justia Law

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John Diamond, III was assaulted and sustained severe injuries while a patron at Platinum Jaxx, a restaurant and bar. He filed suit against Platinum Jaxx, Inc., its landlord, and his assailant, Noel Bungay. A default was entered against Bungay, and the landlord was later granted summary judgment on the claims against it. Diamond proceeded to trial on his remaining claims against Platinum Jaxx. After an eight-day trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding Platinum Jaxx criminally negligent. The jury awarded Diamond $1.85 million in damages and apportioned fault between Platinum Jaxx and Bungay. Platinum Jaxx was found to be 20% at fault for the injuries Diamond received, and Bungay was found 80% at fault. Diamond appealed the superior court’s pre-trial order that precluded him from proceeding on a piercing the corporate veil theory, asking the Alaska Supreme Court to reverse the order and remand to allow the superior court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law on the veil piercing issue. He also challenged other pre-trial orders excluding evidence, and determination of post-judgment cost award allocation. Because Diamond did not plead the veil piercing issue, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order. The superior court also did not abuse its discretion by excluding the challenged evidence and by allocating costs according to the percentage of fault of each defendant. View "Diamond III v. Platinum Jaxx, Inc." on Justia Law

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Two federal district courts certified questions of law to the Alaska Supreme Court involving the state’s “mineral dump lien” statute. In 1910, the United States Congress passed Alaska’s first mineral dump lien statute, granting laborers a lien against a “dump or mass” of hard-rock minerals for their work creating the dump. The mineral dump lien statute remained substantively unchanged since, and rarely have issues involving the statute arisen. The Supreme Court accepted certified questions from both the United States District Court and the United States Bankruptcy Court regarding the scope of the mineral dump lien statute as applied to natural gas development. Cook Inlet Energy, LLC operated oil and gas wells in southcentral Alaska. In November 2014, Cook Inlet contracted with All American Oilfield, LLC to “drill, complete, engineer and/or explore three wells” on Cook Inlet’s oil and gas leaseholds. All American began work soon thereafter, including drilling rig operations, digging holes, casing, and completing the gas wells. When All American concluded its work the following summer, Cook Inlet was unable to pay. In June 2015 All American recorded liens against Cook Inlet, including a mine lien under AS 34.35.125 and a mineral dump lien under AS 34.35.140. In October, after its creditors filed an involuntary petition for relief, Cook Inlet consented to Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. In January 2016 All American filed an adversary proceeding in the bankruptcy court “to determine the validity and priority of its secured claims.” The bankruptcy court found that All American has a valid mine lien against the three wells. But the court denied All American’s asserted mineral dump lien against unextracted gas remaining in natural reservoirs. The court also concluded that All American’s mine lien was subordinate to Cook Inlet’s secured creditors’ prior liens, which would have consumed all of Cook Inlet’s assets and leave All American with nothing. All American appealed to the federal district court, which, in turn, certified questions regarding the Alaska mineral dump lien statute. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the statutory definition of “dump or mass” reflected that a mineral dump lien could extend only to gas extracted from its natural reservoir, that the lien may cover produced gas contained in a pipeline if certain conditions are met, and that to obtain a dump lien laborers must demonstrate that their work aided, broadly, in gas production. View "In re: Cook Inlet Energy, LLC, Gebhardt, v. Inman" on Justia Law

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Jeff Graham was employed as a firefighter/EMT by the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD). He worked for AFD since 1995 and has held his then-current position since 2003. After taking AFD’s engineer promotional exam in 2010, Graham wrote a letter to the AFD fire chief criticizing the subjective nature of the test. In 2012 Graham failed the interview portion of the engineer exam. He subsequently filed a complaint with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, alleging discrimination on the basis of his race (Korean) and age (48). He also petitioned his union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1264 (the Union), to file a grievance against the Municipality of Anchorage on his behalf, under the Union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Municipality. Graham later prevailed in a civil suit against the Municipality of Anchorage for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. He was awarded partial attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(1). Graham argued he should have instead been awarded full fees and costs under his union’s collective bargaining agreement with the Municipality. Because the fee recovery provision in the agreement was not applicable to Graham’s case, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order denying Graham’s motion for full attorney’s fees and costs. View "Graham v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

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Johnny Williams worked for Violeta Baker and her home healthcare services company, Last Frontier Assisted Living, LLC (Last Frontier), from 2004 to 2009. Baker hired Johnny to provide payroll, tax-preparation, bookkeeping, and bill-paying services. She authorized him to make payments from her accounts, both for tax purposes and business expenses, such as payroll. She also gave him general authority to access her checking account and to execute automated clearing house (ACH) transactions from her accounts. In addition, Baker allowed Johnny to write checks bearing her electronic signature. Johnny did not invoice Baker for his labor; rather he and Baker had a tacit understanding that he would pay himself a salary from Baker’s payroll for his services. In 2009 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified Baker that her third-quarter taxes had not been filed and she owed a penalty and interest. Baker contacted Johnny to find out why the taxes had not been filed. When he could not produce a confirmation that he had e-filed them, Baker contacted her son for help. Baker’s son discovered that several checks had been written from Baker’s accounts to Personalized Tax Solutions (a business he maintained) and Deverette. A CPA audited the books and found that Johnny’s services over the time period could be valued between $47,500 and $55,000. Subtracting this from the total in transfers to Johnny, Deverette, and Personalized Tax Solutions resulted in an overpayment to the Williamses of approximately $950,000. A superior court found Deverette and Johnny Williams liable for defrauding Baker, after concluding that both owed her fiduciary duties and therefore had the burden of persuasion to show the absence of fraud. The court totaled fraud damages at nearly five million dollars and trebled this amount under Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). After final judgment was entered against Deverette and Johnny, Johnny died. Deverette appealed her liability for the fraud. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed Deverette’s liability for the portion of the fraud damages that the superior court otherwise identified as her unjust enrichment. But the Court reversed the superior court’s conclusion that she owed Baker a fiduciary duty, and reversed the UTPA treble damages against Deverette. The Court vacated the superior court’s fraud conclusion as to Deverette and remanded for further proceedings. View "Williams v. Baker" on Justia Law

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A Juneau couple with three children separated, and the mother filed for divorce. Wishing to relocate with the children to Oregon for work, she requested primary physical custody. The superior court concluded that it was in the children’s best interests to relocate with the mother. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s custody decision was supported by the record and followed the appropriate legal framework, so it affirmed. View "Brett M. v. Amber M." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Petitioner Lorna Weston was seriously injured when she slipped and fell on ice in a hotel parking lot. Medicare covered her medical expenses, settling the providers’ bills by paying less than one-fifth of the amounts billed. When she later sued the hotel for negligence, the hotel sought to bar her from introducing her original medical bills as evidence of her damages, arguing that only the amount Medicare actually paid was relevant and admissible. The superior court agreed and excluded the evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court granted Weston's petition for review the following questions: (1) whether evidence of medical expenses was properly limited to the amounts actually paid, or whether the amounts billed by the providers - even if later discounted - were relevant evidence of damages; and (2) whether the difference between the amounts billed by the providers and the amounts actually paid was a benefit from a collateral source, subject to the collateral source rule. The Supreme Court concluded that the amounts billed by the providers were relevant evidence of the medical services’ reasonable value. Furthermore, the Court concluded the difference between the amounts billed and the amounts paid was a benefit to the injured party that was subject to the collateral source rule; as such, evidence of the amounts paid was excluded from the jury’s consideration but was subject to post-trial proceedings under AS 09.17.070 for possible reduction of the damages award. View "Weston v AKHappytime, LLC, d/b/a Alex Hotel & Suites" on Justia Law

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In this case, an adult cabaret featuring nude dancing challenged a municipal code provision prohibiting adult-oriented establishments from operating during early morning hours, arguing that if the provision applied to adult cabarets, it was unconstitutional under the federal and Alaska constitutional free speech provisions. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the current municipal closing-hours restriction applied to adult cabarets, but, applying strict scrutiny, that it could not be enforced against adult cabarets in light of the Alaska Constitution’s free speech clause. The Supreme Court left open the possibility that local governments might enact constitutional closing-hours restrictions for adult cabarets, but the Court prohibited enforcement of this particular restriction because the municipal assembly failed to appropriately justify its imposition. View "Club Sinrock, LLC v Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law