Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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Cleveland Karren and Jayda Roman had a daughter, born March 2012 in Washington, D.C. Jayda and the daughter moved in July to Mount Vernon, Washington, to live with Jayda’s parents. The family moved to Anchorage in April 2013. Cleveland later took a job at Joint Base Lewis-McChord; he moved to Washington in April 2014, and Jayda remained in Anchorage with the daughter. In May 2015 Cleveland took a different job and moved to Washington, D.C. Jayda filed the parties’ marital dissolution petition in Anchorage in May 2015. Jayda and Cleveland testified that they both had “live[d] in Alaska six continuous months out of the past six years.” Jayda appealed the Alaska superior court’s child custody order, arguing that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) or that it abused its discretion by failing to decline UCCJEA jurisdiction on inconvenient forum grounds. She also contended the court gave disproportionate weight to the custody investigator’s trial testimony and, under the statutory custody factors, to maintaining the father-daughter relationship. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court had UCCJEA jurisdiction because Alaska was the child’s home state when the proceeding commenced; the Court also concluded that the court properly weighed the statutory inconvenient forum factors and did not abuse its discretion when it determined that deciding custody in Alaska was most practical. And because the court had broad discretion in making a custody determination — including the weight to give a custody investigator’s testimony — the Supreme Court concluded the court did not abuse its discretion when weighing either testimony or statutory custody factors. View "Roman v. Karren" on Justia Law

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Several Alaska Department of Corrections inmates challenged the DOC's policy to charge for local telephone calls, arguing the rates they and call recipients had to pay for calls violated their constitutional right to rehabilitation, their statutory right to reasonable telephone access, and DOC’s contractual obligations under a prior settlement and consent decree. In addition, one of the prisoners challenged DOC officers’ decision to deny him access to a computer programming book he ordered from outside the prison. He contended that DOC placed a content-specific restriction on the educational materials and publications prisoners were allowed, violating the Alaska Constitution’s free speech provisions as well as prisoners’ right to reformation. Each of these challenges reached the Alaska Supreme Court after inmates exhausted the administrative process from prison. Inmates then appealed to the superior court, which denied relief. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court record did not provide enough evidence for it to meaningfully determine the reasonableness of the rates charged inmates for local telephone calls; therefore the Court reversed denial of relief and remanded for further fact-finding by the trial court. The Court concluded that the facility's restrictions on programming-related books were rationally related to a legitimate interest, and because they did not infringe on the right to rehabilitation, it affirmed denial of a prisoner's motion to enforce his claimed right to a particular text about computer programming. View "Antenor v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In the 1940s, Fred E.W. and Clara Seater acquired a roughly five-acre parcel located along the Nikiski Bay beach in the Cook Inlet region, referred to as Lot 9. In 1956, following Fred E.W.’s death, Clara transferred Lot 9 to her sons Ronald Seater and Fred L. Seater, as tenants in common. Fred L. died in 1979. His widow, Lee Seater, as executor of his estate, conveyed his share in Lot 9 to herself. Ronald filed for partition of Lot 9 in January 2010. In February 2012, a superior court issued a partition order severing Ronald and Lee’s tenancy in common. he partition made a straight-line division in Lot 9 to create a northern “Lot 1” and a southern “Lot 2” of “reasonably equal ‘value.’ ” Lee was granted the northern “Lot 1” and Ronald was granted the southern “Lot 2.” In April 2012 Ronald requested the use of an old access trail that crossed Lot 1. In October the superior court granted Ronald “an express appurtenant easement by necessity over Lot 1 for ingress and egress via the trail/road into the northern boundary of Lot 1.” In June 2014 Lee requested that “reciprocal easements for ingress and egress be established between Lot 1 and Lot 2.” In September 2015 the superior court entered a decision granting Lee’s request. In July 2016 Lee moved to enforce the September 2015 decision. She alleged that Ronald was placing boulders on or around the easement to frustrate her access. Ronald claims that in response he “installed boulder fences . . . along a 10-foot wide corridor centered on the ‘diagonal cut’ on Lot 2, in order to mark the boundary between Lots 1 and 2; identify the location of the ‘diagonal cut[’;] deter trespassers (including the Lee Seater family); and prevent more erosion on Lot 2.” In July 2017 Lee filed an enforcement motion alleging that Ronald continued to frustrate her access to the easement. Ronald appealed the modification of the partition, and the subsequent related enforcement orders. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded Ronald's appeal was untimely with respect to all but the most recent enforcement order, which contained an erroneous interpretation of a term used in prior orders. The matter was remanded for the superior court to rectify that mistake. View "Seater v Estate of Fred L. Seater" on Justia Law

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A mother appealed a superior court’s child support order that was based on imputed income, arguing that the court’s finding of her imputed gross income was based on faulty weekly hour and hourly rate determinations. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that by going well beyond the mother’s previous weekly hours and hourly rate without any evidence or findings about commensurate job opportunities and the mother’s abilities and qualifications for those opportunities, the trial court failed to follow established Alaska case law. It therefore vacated the child support order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Vogus v. Vogus" on Justia Law

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A construction contractor’s employees were injured on the job and received workers’ compensation benefits from their employer. The workers later brought a negligence suit against three other corporations: the one that had entered into the construction contract with their employer, that corporation’s parent corporation, and an affiliated corporation that operated the facility under construction. The three corporations moved for summary judgment, arguing that all three were “project owners” potentially liable for the payment of workers’ compensation benefits and therefore were protected from liability under the exclusive liability provision of the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act. The superior court granted the motion, rejecting the workers’ argument that status as a “project owner” was limited to a corporation that had a contractual relationship with their employer. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded a project owner, for purposes of the Act, "must be someone who actually contracts with a person to perform specific work and enjoys the beneficial use of that work." Furthermore, the Court found the workers raised issues of material fact about which of the three corporate defendants satisfied this definition. Judgment was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Lovely, et al. v Baker Hughes, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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At issue in consolidated appeals before the Alaska Supreme Court were the custody proceedings involving the same child before two courts of independent sovereignty: the State of Alaska and the Native Village of Barrow (NVB). A child custody case was initiated in the Utqiagvik superior court. Thereafter, NVB, through its tribal court, took custody of the child in a tribal child in need of aid (CINA) case. In 2016 the superior court ultimately denied the mother’s state court motion to modify custody. NVB sought to intervene in the state custody case, but the superior court denied its motion. The mother appealed the superior court’s denial of her motion to modify custody; NVB appealed the order denying its motion to intervene. The Alaska Supreme Court determined that under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a superior court receiving a tribal court order to determine whether the order was issued in an ICWA-defined child custody proceeding and, if it was, was mandated to follow ICWA section 1911(d)’s full faith and credit mandate. The superior court erred in ruling that the NVB tribal court lacked jurisdiction without following the procedures underlying the process for giving full faith and credit to a tribal court order. View "Native Village of Barrow v. Williams" on Justia Law

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In August 2007 Brent McCormick was injured while working aboard FV CHIPPEWA, owned by Chippewa,Inc. McCormick filed a lawsuit against Chippewa and Louis Olsen, the vessel's captain in August 2010. McCormick initiated settlement negotiations with the employer's insurance company for "policy limits." Under the insurance policy there was a per-occurrence coverage limit. During negotiations, counsel for McCormick and the insurance company discussed the terms of the settlement over a phone call; the parties provided inconsistent accounts of which issues were addressed on the call. McCormick's counsel’s affidavit asserted he raised the issue of the number of occurrences and the parties agreed to leave it unresolved. Shortly after this phone call, the parties reached a purported settlement agreement. McCormick filed suit to enforce the purported settlement agreement for policy limits based on three occurrences. The insurance company filed for summary judgment, asserting that the agreement was for policy limits of a single occurrence. The superior court granted summary judgment for the insurance company, concluding that its interpretation of the purported settlement agreement was correct. On appeal, McCormick argued the superior court abused its discretion on evidentiary and discovery issues and erred by granting the insurer’s motion for summary judgment. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion. But the Court did find an issue of fact barring summary judgment due to the contradictory accounts of the phone call. A reasonable person could have discerned a genuine factual dispute on a material issue because this phone call could have either: (1) provided extrinsic evidence of the meaning of the settlement agreement, or (2) indicated there was no meeting of the minds on an essential term, and thus no enforceable agreement was formed. Therefore, summary judgment was inappropriate and the matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "McCormick v. Chippewa, Inc." on Justia Law

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A father appealed after his parental rights to his daughter were terminated. The father attended the termination proceeding but left early, at which point the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) moved forward with an offer of proof. The father’s attorney objected to the offer of proof, but the court accepted the offer and terminated the father’s parental rights. Before the Alaska Supreme Court, the father challenged the termination proceeding’s procedure and outcome, arguing thatOCS’ use of an offer of proof violated his right to procedural due process and constituted structural error. He also argued the trial court erred in terminating his parental rights because there was not sufficient evidence. The Supreme Court agrees that a court could not accept such an offer as proof of the facts asserted, unless the opposing party offers no dispute. Therefore, the termination order was vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Norman S. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs, Ofc. of Children's Svcs." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Supreme Court has held previously that, under some circumstances, a parent whose parental rights have been involuntarily terminated under Alaska’s child in need of aid (CINA) statutes could seek post-termination review and reinstatement of parental rights. A superior court may vacate a termination order if the child has not yet been adopted and the parent demonstrates, “by clear and convincing evidence, that reinstatement of parental rights is in the best interest of the child and that the person is rehabilitated and capable of providing the care and guidance that will serve the moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare of the child.” Dara S. was the biological mother of Paxton, born February 2011, Paxton was born in Alaska but lived with Dara’s sister and brother-in-law, Scarlet and Monty, in Oregon since being placed with them by OCS in April 2014. Dara visited Paxton in July 2014 and decided to stay in Oregon. Dara’s parental rights to her son had were ultimately terminated as a result of her mental health issues. She timely sought review and reinstatement of her parental rights, and an Alaskan superior court granted review and ultimately granted her reinstatement request. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and the child’s guardian ad litem (GAL) appealed the reinstatement decision, arguing both that post-termination reinstatement of parental rights after an involuntary termination was barred as a matter of law and that the mother had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that reinstatement was in the child’s best interests. The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the argument that reinstatement was barred as a matter of law, but remanded the case to the superior court for further elucidation of its best interests determination. The superior court held a post-remand evidentiary hearing and ultimately confirmed its best interests determination. OCS, joined by the GAL, appealed that determination, arguing that some of the court’s underlying factual findings, and therefore its ultimate best interests finding, were clearly erroneous, and that the reinstatement order therefore had to be vacated, leaving the parental rights termination in place. The Supreme Court determined the disputed underlying factual findings supporting the best interests determination either were not material or not clearly erroneous. Therefore, it concluded the superior court’s reinstatement decision should have been affirmed. View "Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services v. Dara S." on Justia Law

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Raymond Dapo was born in 1990. OCS took custody of him ten years later and, in April 2000, placed him in Taun Lucas’s foster home. Lucas and her husband David legally adopted Dapo in May 2002. According to Dapo, Lucas began sexually abusing him shortly thereafter; Lucas, however, alleged that she was sexually abused by Dapo, and Dapo, then 11 years old, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault. The charges were eventually dropped, and Dapo was returned to the custody of the State as a dependent child. When he was 24 years old (in 2015), Dapo filed a complaint against Lucas, alleging that she had sexually abused him while he was a minor. In September 2015, Lucas filed a third-party claim against OCS for apportionment of fault, contending that OCS “had a duty to protect” Dapo and “negligently failed to protect” him. The superior court granted OCS’s motion to dismiss the apportionment claim, holding that it was barred by the ten-year statute of repose, AS 09.10.055(a). Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the statute of repose applied to the apportionment claim and was not unconstitutional as applied. However, the Court determined there were issues of fact regarding the applicability of two exceptions to the statute of repose: claims for gross negligence and claims for breaches of fiduciary duty. Therefore the superior court’s order was reversed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Dapo v. Alaska, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law