Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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In early December 2018, Jan K. gave birth to Ada K. in Anchorage. Within a few days the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of Ada and filed an emergency petition to adjudicate her as a child in need of aid. OCS identified Ralph W. As Ada's father. Jan had reported that Ralph was the "biological father" and that he "had intended to be at the hospital for the birth." Jan and Ralph did not live together, but both lived in Wasilla. According to OCS, Ralph said he had known Jan for “approximately one year”; Ralph “was aware of the pregnancy and was certain that he was the father and wanted the child to be placed with him.” OCS also asserted that Ralph said he had been present at all of Jan’s prenatal appointments and they planned to marry. According to OCS, Ralph explained he had not been present at the birth because Jan had been unable to call him, and no one else had called him. OCS noted that Ralph took a paternity test that day. While the parties concurred Ada should have been placed with Ralph, OCS declined until paternity test results were received. At the time of the hearing, the results were not in. The parties nonetheless stipulated, subject to the pending paternity test results, that Ada be placed with Ralph and that “if it turns out that [Ralph] is not the father, [OCS] will have the authority to immediately remove [Ada].” The Office of Public Advocacy petitioned for the Alaska Supreme Court's review of the trial court's appointment order. Within a week, the paternity test results excluded Ralph as Ada's father, and an order disestablishing paternity was entered. Despite the issue being moot, the Supreme Court granted OPA's petition for review to clarify the appointment of counsel in this context. The primary issue for review reduced to whether a putative father’s parentage could be judicially established by “sufficient evidence” presented to the superior court — or must be established by scientific, genetic testing — to allow appointment of public agency counsel to the putative father in a CINA proceeding. The Court concluded that a judicial determination of paternity did not necessarily need underlying scientific, genetic testing in this context, and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Office of Public Advocacy v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The respondent in an involuntary commitment proceeding, "Meredith B.," appealed the ex parte order authorizing her hospitalization for evaluation and the subsequent 30-day commitment order. Respondent argued that the screening investigation was inadequate because she was not interviewed. She asserted that, as a result, both the order hospitalizing her for evaluation and the 30-day commitment order should have been reversed and vacated. Further, she challenged the 30-day commitment order finding she was (1) "gravely disabled" and there (2) was a reasonable expectation she could improve with treatment. After review of the order at issue, the Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court's decision was supported by clear and convincing evidence. "If there was an error during the screening investigation, the error was harmless, because the respondent had the opportunity to testify at the 30-day commitment hearing." View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of M.B." on Justia Law

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An Alaskan superior court terminated a mother’s and father’s parental rights based on a finding that they caused mental injury to their child. Relevant to this finding, the child in need of aid (CINA) statutes provided that a court may find a child in need of aid due to parental conduct or conditions causing the child “mental injury”; they also provideed that a “mental injury” exists when there was “a serious injury to the child as evidenced by an observable and substantial impairment in the child’s ability to function in a developmentally appropriate manner and the existence of that impairment is supported by the opinion of a qualified expert witness.” The primary issue before the Alaska Supreme Court in this case was one of evidence rule and statutory interpretation in the context of a judge-tried CINA matter: did the statutorily required expert witness have to be offered and affirmatively accepted as a qualified expert witness by the superior court? The Supreme Court concluded the answer was “yes”; that it would review a claim of error in this regard despite a lack of objection in the superior court; and that it would conclude any such error is harmless only if - considering the parent was not necessarily on notice to make an on-record challenge to the expert’s qualifications - the Supreme Court could conclude the putative expert clearly was qualified to render the specific testimony required by statute. View "C.G. v. Alaska, Dept. Health & Social Serv." on Justia Law

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The plaintiff in this case, M.M, was incapacitated, and in July 2014, a superior court appointed the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) as guardian. Plaintiff raised several issues in a complaint filed on his behalf by a next friend - issues regarding the caseloads of OPA workers, the lack of standards of practice for OPA workers, and OPA not visiting its wards quarterly as required by statute. Plaintiff requested class certification, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief. The superior court granted summary judgment against plaintiff on all issues except one, and the parties proceeded with discovery and briefing on the issue whether OPA had met its statutory requirement to visit plaintiff on a quarterly basis. After the parties stipulated to a set of facts, the superior court granted OPA’s motion for summary judgment on the remaining issue. OPA moved for attorney’s fees, which the court granted but reduced, and the court entered final judgment in favor of OPA. Plaintiff appealed, arguing the superior court improperly interpreted the statutes addressing to whom OPA may delegate duties, erred by awarding attorney’s fees, and erred by holding the plaintiff’s next friend personally liable for fees. Because the superior court properly interpreted the statutes at issue, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed its ruling that OPA could contract with service providers to help satisfy its statutory visitation duty. As to the attorney’s fees award, the Supreme Court concluded it was error to hold plaintiff’s next friend personally liable for fees. The matter was remanded for the superior court to reconsider whether to impose fees on plaintiff, given that the next friend was no longer personally liable. View "M.M. v. Alaska Dept. of Admin." on Justia Law

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Kaleb Basey, who was convicted of federal crimes, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in January 2016 against several Alaska state troopers based on their actions during his investigation and arrest. In September, Basey submitted two public records requests to the Alaska State Troopers seeking various documents relating to the investigation of his case, including two troopers' disciplinary records. Basey's requests were promptly denied on the ground that the information pertained to pending litigation. Asking for reconsideration, Basey's request was again denied, again citing the pending litigation. Acting pro se, Basey appealed, and his appeal reached the Alaska Supreme Court. In 2017, the Supreme Court reversed a superior court's dismissal order, holding that neither disclosure exception the State used as grounds for resisting Basey's request had applied. Basey moved to compel production of the requested records in January 2018. The State responded by agreeing to produce certain records, denying the existence of others, and asserting that the requested disciplinary records were private personnel records exempt from disclosure. In a seonc trip to the Alaska Supreme Court, the issue before the Court was whether state employee disciplinary records were confidential “personnel records” under the State Personnel Act and therefore not subject to disclosure under the Alaska Public Records Act. To this, the Court concluded that, with one express statutory exception not relevant to this case, the answer was “yes.” View "Basey v. Alaska Dept. of Pub.Safety" on Justia Law

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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