Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

by
In a case involving the State of Alaska's Office of Children’s Services (OCS), an adult relative, Taryn M., appealed the denial of her request to have custody of an Indian child, Marcy P., who was in the custody of OCS. Marcy P. had a severe congenital disease and required a bone marrow transplant. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the decision of the lower court, finding that OCS had demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that Taryn M. was an unsuitable caretaker for Marcy P. The court established that the burden of proof was on OCS to show that a preferred placement under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was unsuitable. The evidence presented showed that Taryn M. was unwilling to abide by Marcy’s treatment plans, with instances including not following medical advice for treating fevers and not returning Marcy after a visit as planned. The court concluded that Taryn M.'s actions demonstrated clear and convincing evidence that she was an unsuitable caretaker. View "Taryn M. v. State of Alaska, Department of Family & Community Services" on Justia Law

by
In a dispute between the State of Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services and Jennifer D. White and John P. Shannon, D.C., the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska had to consider whether an adjudicative agency could refuse to consider a contested legal question because the legislature had given a different agency authority over the contested legal issue. In this particular case, the employer disputed its liability under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act for an injured employee’s chiropractic care, alleging that the care provided was not compensable because it was outside the scope of the chiropractor’s license. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided it did not have jurisdiction to determine the chiropractor’s scope of practice because the legislature had granted that authority to the Alaska Board of Chiropractic Examiners. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the Commission’s decision, agreeing that the workers’ compensation agencies lacked jurisdiction to determine the boundaries of chiropractic practice in the context of this case. The court also agreed with the Commission’s discovery decision, concluding that the discovery was not relevant to issues within the Board’s jurisdiction. The court further affirmed the Commission’s decision that the treatments were compensable. View "State of Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services v. White" on Justia Law

by
In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska upheld a lower court's decision that Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. and The Williams Companies, Inc. (collectively, "Williams") were strictly liable for the release of hazardous substances at a North Pole refinery they previously owned and operated. The substances, including sulfolane, a purifying solvent, had contaminated local groundwater. The court also upheld the ruling that Williams was responsible for paying damages to the State of Alaska and making contributions to the current owner, Flint Hills Resources, for its remediation costs.The court rejected Williams's claims that sulfolane was not a hazardous substance under state law. It also rejected the argument that the company's due process rights were violated because, it argued, it did not have fair notice that its conduct was prohibited. The court further denied Williams's argument that the imposition of retroactive liability for past releases constituted an unconstitutional taking of property.In addition, the court determined that Williams had retained liability for offsite sulfolane releases when it sold the refinery to Flint Hills. It also found that Flint Hills could seek statutory contribution from Williams for certain costs related to the contamination. However, the court remanded the grant of injunctive relief for more specificity as required by rule. Williams was ordered to pay damages for loss of access to groundwater due to sulfolane contamination, and for the costs of response, containment, removal, or remedial action incurred by the state. View "Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

by
In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the Attorney General for the State of Alaska, Treg R. Taylor, sued the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency. The dispute arose from a disagreement between the executive and legislative branches over when an appropriations bill passed by the legislature would take effect, with potential implications for funding state government in the subsequent fiscal year. The Attorney General asked the court for a declaration that any expenditure of state funds without an effective appropriation was unlawful, unless the expenditure was necessary to meet constitutional obligations to maintain the health and safety of residents or federal obligations. The superior court dismissed the case, holding that the lawsuit was barred by a provision of the Alaska Constitution (article III, section 16) that prohibits the governor from suing the legislature. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed that decision. The court held that, although the Attorney General brought the suit, it was in substance a suit brought by the Governor "in the name of the State" against the legislature. Therefore, it was barred by the Alaska Constitution. The Supreme Court also remanded the issue of attorney’s fees for further proceedings in the lower court. View "Treg R. Taylor, in his Official Capacity as Attorney General of the State of Alaska v. Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency" on Justia Law

by
In Fairbanks, Alaska, a man, Timothy Teslow, cut down a grove of birch trees on a property that was up for sale by its owner, Wallace Cox. The property was subsequently bought by David and Rhetta Bragg. The Braggs sued Teslow for damages, claiming that he had trespassed on the property and cut down the trees without permission. However, midway through the proceedings, they decided not to oppose Teslow's motion for summary judgment, believing their claims were not viable. The Superior Court of the State of Alaska ruled in favor of Teslow and awarded him full attorney’s fees, finding that the Braggs' claims were frivolous and that they had filed the lawsuit with an improper purpose. The Braggs appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska held that one of the Braggs' claims was not frivolous and that the finding of an improper purpose was clearly wrong. The court vacated the award of full attorney’s fees and remanded the issue of fees for further consideration. However, the court affirmed the denial of the Braggs' motion for relief from the judgment under Alaska Civil Rule 60(b), stating that the incompetent advice of their attorney is not a ground for relief from judgment under this rule. View "Bragg v. Teslow" on Justia Law

by
In this case, two individuals, Tong Vang and Pa Kou Xiong, were in a relationship recognized by Hmong cultural customs but were not legally married. They had two children together. Upon their separation, Xiong sought repayment of $38,000, which she claimed were loans to Vang and his family. Vang disputed this and counterclaimed for damages. The Superior Court of the State of Alaska found in favor of Xiong, and Vang appealed.On appeal, Vang argued that the court should have applied a presumption that transfers of funds between close relatives are considered gifts rather than loans. However, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska rejected this argument because the parties were not legally married or in a domestic partnership, and they were not close relatives. Additionally, the court found that the record supported the lower court’s finding that Xiong intended the transfers of money to be loans.The court affirmed the lower court’s judgment, holding that the Superior Court did not err in treating the transfers as loans rather than gifts. The court found that Vang did not establish that he and Xiong were married, in a domestic partnership, or close relatives, which would have triggered the presumption that the transfers were gifts. Furthermore, the court found that the record supported the Superior Court's finding that Xiong intended the transfers of money to be loans. View "Vang v. Xiong" on Justia Law

Posted in: Contracts, Family Law
by
In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the primary issue was whether two documents, both named as the will of Janice Evensen, met the statutory requirements to be valid holographic wills. Holographic wills are handwritten wills that may be deemed valid even if they do not satisfy the usual requirements for valid wills, such as being properly witnessed, as long as the signature and material portions of the document are in the testator’s handwriting.Janice Evensen had created two wills - one in 1994 and another in 2007. Both wills were typewritten but contained handwritten alterations and additions by Evensen. Neither was properly witnessed. After Evensen's death, the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Alaska SPCA) sought to have both wills recognized as valid and admitted to probate.The Supreme Court held that the 1994 will met the statutory requirements for a valid holographic will and reversed the superior court's contrary conclusion. The court found that Evensen's handwritten additions to the 1994 will satisfied the statutory requirement that the “material portions” — words identifying the property and the devisee — be in her handwriting. Therefore, the 1994 will was a valid holographic will, and it reflected Evensen's testamentary intent.However, the court affirmed the superior court's decision rejecting the 2007 will. The court found that since the original of the 2007 will was never found, there was a rebuttable presumption that Evensen had revoked it. The Alaska SPCA failed to provide clear and convincing evidence to rebut this presumption of revocation. Therefore, the 2007 will was not a valid will.The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Janice V. Evensen" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
by
In this case, Veronica Louise Hudson and Daniel Lee Hudson, a married couple in Alaska, divorced. The major points of contention revolved around the division of marital property and the classification of a severance and bonus package received by Daniel from his former employer, BP. Veronica argued that the severance and bonus pay were marital property, while Daniel contended that they were his separate property. The trial court ruled that the severance and bonus pay were separate property, and divided the remaining marital property equally between the parties. Veronica also challenged the court's order allowing Daniel to make an equalization payment over five years rather than in a lump sum and the court's denial of her request for attorney fees.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska concluded that the lower court erred in classifying the severance and bonus pay without sufficient information, and in its findings related to economic misconduct and the financial condition of the parties. The court also held that the lower court abused its discretion in ordering a schedule of equalization payments over multiple years. The court remanded the case for further proceedings to determine the purpose of the severance and bonus pay, and whether a different division of property is warranted. The court also required the lower court to reconsider the terms of any equalization payment. The court affirmed the lower court's denial of attorney's fees. View "Hudson v. Hudson" on Justia Law

by
In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was tasked with determining whether a judgment against a self-represented litigant, Jon Buchholdt, was void due to improper service of process. Jeremy Nelson, Buchholdt's former client, had sued him for legal malpractice and won a judgment of $200,000, but Buchholdt argued that he was not properly served and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The main issue in this case was whether Buchholdt was properly served with the summons and complaint by certified, restricted mail sent to his law office, which was rerouted to his home and signed by his alleged agent, "Suz Miller." Buchholdt contended that he was not properly served as he never personally signed for the service, and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The court held that Buchholdt failed to meet his burden of demonstrating that the judgment was void. Despite his claims, Buchholdt did not provide any evidence to contradict Nelson's evidence of service or to show that Suz Miller was not authorized to receive service on his behalf. Additionally, Buchholdt had listed Nelson's lawsuit as a contingent liability when he filed for bankruptcy, indicating he had knowledge of the suit.Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of Buchholdt's motions to set aside the judgment and for reconsideration. The court did not find that the judgment was void due to a lack of personal jurisdiction resulting from improper service of process. View "Buchholdt v. Nelson" on Justia Law

by
In the State of Alaska, a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder stopped taking his medication, experienced a manic episode, and was hospitalized as a result. The hospital staff petitioned for him to be involuntarily committed for 30 days, which the superior court granted. The man appealed, arguing against the court's decision that he was likely to cause harm to others, was gravely disabled, and that there was no less restrictive alternative to involuntary commitment. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska held that the man's rights were violated because there was a feasible, less restrictive alternative to the involuntary commitment. The court also ruled that even if the suggested outpatient treatment proposal was not feasible, the State had failed to meet its burden of proving that no less restrictive alternative existed, as it did not consider any other treatment options beyond the man's proposal. The commitment order was vacated on these grounds. View "In the Matter of the Necessity of the Hospitalization of Declan P." on Justia Law