Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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An elementary school nurse who unsuccessfully attempted to save the life of a choking child sought workers’ compensation benefits for mental health problems she attributed to the incident. She argued that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to exposure to the child’s bodily fluids and resulting risk of disease and to the mental stress of the incident. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied her claims, concluding that her exposure to bodily fluids was not a sufficient physical injury to trigger a presumption of compensability and that the mental stress of the incident was not sufficiently extraordinary or unusual to merit compensation. The Board was most persuaded by the opinion of the employer’s medical expert that the nurse’s mental health problems were the result of a pre-existing mental health condition and were not caused by the incident. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found: (1) the Board failed to recognize the link between exposure to bodily fluids and mental distress over the risk of serious disease, which under Alaska precedent was enough to establish a presumption that the mental distress is compensable; and (2) the Board failed to consider the particular details of the child’s death and the nurse’s involvement when it concluded as a general matter that the stress of responding to a choking incident at school was not sufficiently extraordinary to merit compensation for mental injury. However, because the Board found in the alternative that the incident was not the cause of the nurse’s mental health problems, and because both the Commission and the Alaska Supreme Court had to respect the Board’s credibility determinations and the weight it gave conflicting evidence, the denial of benefits was affirmed. View "Patterson v. Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that a carpenter who admitted using alcohol and cocaine before his injury had a compensable disability because it determined the accident would have happened regardless of his drug and alcohol use. The Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund, which was responsible for payment if an employer defaults, appealed, arguing that the employee’s intoxication barred compensation. The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision because substantial evidence supported it. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska Workers' Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund v. Adams, et al." on Justia Law

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Attorney David Graham represented Sandra Rusch and Brenda Dockter in separate proceedings against the same employer before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. Rusch injured her back working for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) in Klawock. Dockter sustained a knee injury at work for SEARHC in Sitka. After litigation, the parties successfully settled most issues with the assistance of a Board mediator. The parties were unable to resolve the amount of attorney’s fees SEARHC would pay for Graham’s work, so that issue proceeded to hearings, which the Board heard jointly. The Board awarded far less in attorney’s fees than the claimants sought. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decisions, resolving most but not all issues in favor of the claimants, and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. The Supreme Court instructed the Board to consider the factors from the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct to determine reasonable fees. After the Supreme Court awarded attorney’s fees to the claimants for their appeal to the Court, the claimants sought fees for their work in the first appeal to the Commission, asking the Commission to adopt the modified lodestar approach to awarding fees. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act authorized the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission to award enhanced attorney’s fees to successful claimants for their attorneys’ work in a Commission appeal. The Commission decided the Act did not. But because the Commission’s decision rested on an incorrect interpretation of the Act and because the Commission failed to consider the claimants’ evidence and arguments in favor of enhancement, the Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Commission for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law

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The State redesigned the dental insurance plan offered to public retirees in 2014, narrowing coverage but also decreasing premiums paid by retirees. The Retired Public Employees of Alaska challenged the redesign. After a bench trial the superior court concluded that the new plan unconstitutionally diminished retirees’ accrued benefits. The State appealed, arguing that the superior court erred by determining the dental plan was a constitutionally protected “accrued benefit” and by refusing to consider premium rates for retirees as relevant to the diminishment analysis. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the State on the second point only: "The Alaska Constitution does protect public retirees’ option to purchase dental insurance as an accrued benefit, but both coverage for retirees and price to retirees influence the value of this option." The Court therefore vacated and remanded for the superior court to reevaluate the plan changes and incorporate premium pricing into its analysis. View "Tshibaka v. Retired Public Employees of Alaska, Inc." on Justia Law

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Stephan “Craig” Mitchell suffered a work-related back injury in 1995. Since that time he had continuing back pain and received numerous medical interventions to try to treat the pain, including several surgeries. This appeal from the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission raised two issues: (1) whether the employer rebutted the presumption that the worker was permanently and totally disabled between 2004 and 2017 due to a back injury; and (2) whether the worker is entitled to compensation for a back surgery obtained without prior approval. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because the employer in this case failed to produce evidence of jobs that could accommodate the worker’s limitations, the employer failed to rebut the presumption that he was disabled. And because the surgery did not yield long­ term pain relief or functional improvement and because it entailed using a medical device in a way that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had specifically warned was not established as safe or effective, it was not an abuse of discretion to deny reimbursement. View "Mitchell v. United Parcel Service, et al." on Justia Law

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An apprentice electrician, who was unmarried and had no dependents, was working for a construction project subcontractor when she died in an accident. Her direct employer paid funeral benefits required by the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act; no other benefits were required under the Act. The employee’s estate brought a wrongful death action against the general contractor and the building owner; they moved to dismiss the action based on the Act’s exclusive liability provisions, which were expanded in 2004 to include contractors and project owners. The estate moved for summary judgment, arguing that the 2004 exclusive liability expansion violated due process because it left the estate without an effective remedy. The court rejected the estate’s argument and dismissed the wrongful death action, entering judgment against the estate. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment. View "Burke v. Criterion General Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied a two-year limitations period to claims for “compensation for disability.” In 1988, the legislature reconfigured one type of compensation — for permanent partial disability — as compensation for permanent partial impairment. The claimant here argued this amendment exempted claims for impairment compensation from the statute of limitations. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed: because the statutory text contains ambiguity and the legislative history evinced no intent to exempt impairment claims from the statute of limitations, the Court ruled that claims for impairment compensation were subject to the Act’s two-year limitations period. A secondary issue in this case was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board properly denied paralegal costs for work related to other claims. The applicable regulation required a claim for paralegal costs be supported by the paralegal’s own affidavit attesting to the work performed. To this, the Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s argument that this regulation was contrary to statute and the constitution. View "Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law

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A minor was severely injured in an all-terrain vehicle collision in which the other driver was at fault. The minor had medical benefits coverage through a health care plan provided by her father’s employer, the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As allowed by the terms of the plan, the Borough refused to pay the minor’s medical bills until she signed an agreement that included a waiver of certain defenses to the Borough’s subrogation rights, such as the common fund and made-whole doctrines. The minor refused to sign the agreement without reservation and filed suit, seeking a declaration that the Borough could not condition payment of her medical bills on her signature. The superior court decided on summary judgment that the Borough’s health care plan was not a true insurance plan and that, regardless of whether it was interpreted as an insurance policy or an ordinary contract, the parties could lawfully reject subrogation defenses. The minor appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the health care plan was a bargained-for employee benefit rather than a true insurance policy, and that the superior court’s interpretation of it was correct. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Best v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law

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Appellant Beverly Sumpter worked as a school aide. She reported an injury to her cervical spine after she repositioned a disabled student in his wheelchair. Sumpter had significant preexisting cervical spine problems. Doctors disagreed about whether the incident she described could have aggravated these problems and if so for how long. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that her work was not the substantial cause of her ongoing disability and need for medical care, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Sumpter appealed, contending that the Board and Commission applied incorrect legal standards and that the Board failed to make findings about material and contested issues. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District" on Justia Law

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After initially disputing that a corrections officer was permanently and totally disabled from injuries suffered at work, the State conceded his disability status. The parties did not enter into a written settlement or stipulation because they disagreed about the amount of attorney’s fees the State should pay the officer’s attorney. After a hearing the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board awarded attorney’s fees under AS 23.30.145(a) in two parts: it awarded a specific amount of fees for work up to the time of the hearing and statutory minimum fees of 10% of ongoing benefits as long as the officer received permanent total disability benefits. The State appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, which affirmed the Board’s decision because in the Commission’s view the award was not manifestly unreasonable. The State then appealed the Commission’s decision to us. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Wozniak" on Justia Law