Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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Paternal grandparents sought a court order for visitation with their grandson. The superior court denied their request because they did not allege that the child suffered any detriment from a lack of court-ordered visitation. Finding no reversible error in that denial, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed: “[t]he balance of interests that due process requires was resolved in favor of the parents, and the result is the ‘showing of detriment’ test which the grandparents here have failed to even argue they could satisfy.” View "Jordan v. Watson" on Justia Law

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A mother and son disputed ownership of a house in Ketchikan. The son contended his mother gave him the property following her husband’s death, and that he spent years repairing and renovating it on the understanding that it was his. His mother argued the house was still hers, and agreed to transfer title only if her son repaired the property and paid off the mortgage, which he failed to do. Following a bench trial on the son’s quiet title claim, the superior court found that he failed to prove his mother’s intent to transfer the property. Because the superior court properly applied the relevant legal doctrines and did not clearly err in its findings of fact, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed its judgment. View "Dixon v. Dixon" on Justia Law

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An undeveloped greenbelt buffer runs between Bill Yankee’s property and the back of Chris and Ann Gilbertos’. The two properties are in different subdivisions and therefore subject to different covenants: Yankee’s property is in the Nunatak Terrace Subdivision whereas the Gilbertos’ is in the Montana Creek Subdivision. Yankee complained about the fence to the Director of Juneau’s Community Development Department, but the Director responded that the fence was allowed, citing longstanding policy. Yankee then appealed to the Planning Commission, which affirmed the Director’s decision. Yankee next appealed to the Juneau Assembly, which rejected his appeal for lack of standing. Yankee appealed this decision to the superior court, which affirmed the Assembly’s reliance on standing as grounds to reject the appeal. Yankee then appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which concluded the Director’s decision was an appropriate exercise of his enforcement discretion, not ordinarily subject to judicial review. On that alternative ground the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s dismissal of the appeal. View "Yankee v. City & Borough of Juneau" on Justia Law

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A trial court determined the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) failed to demonstrate it made reasonable efforts to reunify a family. Nonetheless, the court terminated Kylie L.’s parental rights to her daughter, finding that OCS’s failure was “excused.” The mother appealed, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s “excuse.” View "Kylie L. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law

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Divorced parents reached a custody settlement giving the mother sole legal and primary physical custody of their son; the father had visitation at the mother’s discretion. After the father later requested joint legal and shared physical custody, the mother sought authorization to relocate with the child out of state. At a combined hearing on both issues the father presented evidence that the mother may have committed domestic violence against a former boyfriend. The superior court denied the custody modification request for failure to demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances. The court granted the mother authorization to move, finding her reasons for relocating legitimate and determining that the child’s best interests were served by staying with the mother. Under the court’s subsequent order the mother maintained sole legal and primary physical custody, with limited visitation by the father. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the determination that the mother’s move was for legitimate purposes; however, it vacated the underlying finding that no domestic violence occurred between the mother and her former boyfriend and remanded that issue for renewed consideration. Necessarily, the Court remanded the custody and visitation decisions for renewed consideration. View "Bruce H. v. Jennifer L." on Justia Law

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After a mother and daughter were involved in a car accident, they (and the father) sued the employer of the other vehicle’s driver. The employer made separate offers of judgment to the mother and daughter under Alaska Civil Rule 68, which they rejected. At trial all three plaintiffs were awarded damages. With respect to the mother, the superior court awarded partial attorney’s fees to the employer under Rule 68 because the mother’s award was less than 95% of the offer made to her. Mother appealed, arguing that the offer of judgment was not a valid Rule 68 offer and that the superior court wrongly excluded certain costs that, when included, would have led to an award of more than 95% of the offer of judgment. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found the offer of judgment was valid and that the court did not err in excluding costs not covered by Alaska Civil Rule 79 when comparing the offer to the mother’s recovery. View "Whittenton v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc." on Justia Law

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The superior court granted joint legal and primary physical custody of a child to his maternal grandmother and step-grandfather. The child’s mother, who retained joint legal custody and visitation rights, appealed, arguing: (1) she was entitled to court-appointed counsel during the proceedings; (2) the order violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to direct the upbringing and education of her child; and (3) the court erred in its custody determination. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found that because the mother provided no legal basis for her claim to court-appointed counsel, the trial court did not err in denying that request. Because the court applied the correct constitutional and legal standard for third-party custody, its factual findings were not clearly erroneous, and its exercise of discretion was not unreasonable, the Supreme Court affirmed the court’s order awarding joint legal and primary physical custody of the child to the grandparents. View "Dara v. Gish" on Justia Law

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The superior court dismissed a complaint by Douglas Indian Association against Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and two Central Council officials on tribal sovereign immunity grounds. Douglas argued the superior court’s action was premature because sovereign immunity was an affirmative defense that should be resolved following discovery. The Alaska Supreme Court found federal courts recognizing tribal sovereign immunity is a jurisdictional bar that may be asserted at any time, and the Alaska Court agreed with this basic principle. "Immunity is a core aspect of tribal sovereignty that deprives our courts of jurisdiction when properly asserted." The Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s order dismissing the complaint. View "Douglas Indian Association v. Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska" on Justia Law

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Two families shared a duplex in Ketchikan. Brian Calvin and his wife and child lived in the upper unit; Tracy Harrell, her husband, Klyn Kloxin, and her mother, Winnie Sue Willis, lived in the bottom unit. In 2013, the duplex was destroyed by fire, and Willis was killed. Harrell concluded the cause of the fire was the upper unit's electric fish smoker, and sued their neighbors above asserting claims for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The superior court concluded that their suit was barred by two-year statutes of limitations and granted summary judgment for the neighbor. The court also awarded the neighbor attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 82 and entered judgment jointly and severally against the estate and the two individuals. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the statutes of limitations were tolled by the "discovery rule." They also argued the court abused its discretion in assessing attorney’s fees against them as individuals and in making them jointly and severally liable for the judgment. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court properly applied the statutes of limitations and that it did not abuse its discretion in its attorney’s fees award. View "Harrell v. Calvin" on Justia Law

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An insured sued her auto insurer and one of its adjusters, alleging that the insurer breached the insurance contract and committed tortious bad faith by withholding underinsured motorist benefits and that the adjuster negligently handled her claim for those benefits. The insurer then paid all available underinsured motorist benefits to the insured, including interest. The insured continued her tort claims, alleging additional financial and emotional harm from the delayed benefits payment. The insured proposed a jury instruction addressing the effect of the insurer’s belated payment, but the superior court rejected that instruction. After trial the jury determined that: (1) the insurer had acted in bad faith, but its conduct was not a substantial factor in causing the insured’s asserted harm; and (2) the adjuster had not been negligent. The superior court subsequently ordered the jury to award the insured nominal damages. The jury then awarded the insured $2 in nominal damages and later awarded $450,000 in punitive damages. The superior court awarded the insured prevailing party costs and attorney’s fees against the insurer. The court also awarded the adjuster prevailing party attorney’s fees against the insured. The court rejected the insured’s request that judgment against the insurer be entered nunc pro tunc to the date of the jury verdict so that post-judgment interest on the punitive damages award would start earlier. The insurer appealed the nominal and punitive damages awards and the prevailing party determination. The insured cross-appealed the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award, the jury’s failure to award compensatory damages, the court’s rejection of the insured’s proposed jury instruction, and the court’s refusal to enter judgment effective from the jury verdict date. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed in all respects save the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award: that was remanded for further proceedings. View "Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Gonzalez" on Justia Law