Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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The superior court found no inconsistency in the jury verdict, and denied appellant Todeschi’s motion for a new trial. Finding no error in the superior court judgement, the Supreme Court affirmed. Appellee, a mine supervisor, suffered back injuries over the course of his career and required several surgeries. His employer terminated his employment following his request for an accommodation and his renewed pursuit of a three-year-old workers’ compensation claim. The supervisor sued, alleging breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and unlawful discrimination based both on a disability and on his assertion of the workers’ compensation claim. The employer defended on grounds that the supervisor could no longer perform the essential functions of his job and had declined an offered accommodation; it also asserted that it was not liable for the workers’ compensation claim. A jury returned a special verdict finding the employer liable for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and awarding the supervisor $215,000 in past lost income, but finding in the employer’s favor on the supervisor’s other claims. The supervisor appealed, arguing the superior court erred when it: (1) denied his motion for a directed verdict on whether he has a disability; (2) denied his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict due to an inconsistency between the jury’s decisions of two of his claims; (3) declined to give a burden-shifting or adverse inference instruction based on alleged spoliation of evidence; and (4) raised a statute of limitations defense by way of a jury instruction. The employer cross-appealed, arguing that the superior court erred in excluding one of its witnesses. View "Todeschi v. Sumitomo Metal Mining Pogo, LLC" on Justia Law

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State employee Shirley Shea suffered from chronic pain and has been unable to work. She applied for occupational disability benefits, claiming that prolonged sitting at work aggravated a preexisting medical condition. The Division of Retirement and Benefits denied the claim. An administrative law judge affirmed that decision, determining that employment was not a substantial factor in causing Shea's disability. On appeal, the superior court reversed the administrative law judge’s decision. Because the administrative law judge’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s decision and affirmed the administrative law judge. View "Alaska Dept. of Administration, Division of Retirement & Benefits v. Shea" on Justia Law

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A tour company hired an Ronald Burton ("employee") to work the tourist season as one of its representatives at a Fairbanks hotel where he had worked seasonally in the past. During training, hotel management recalled that the employee had been difficult to work with. They told the tour company they did not want him working at their hotel and, in explaining their decision, made several unfounded statements about him. When the tour company was unable to place the employee at a different hotel because of his limited transportation, it terminated his employment. The employee sued the hotel for defamation and for tortious interference with his prospective business relationship with his employer. Following a bench trial the superior court rejected the tortious interference claim based on lack of causation but found that several of the hotel’s statements were defamatory per se, justifying an award of general damages but not special or punitive damages. The court also denied the employee’s motion to amend his complaint to add a new defamation claim based on events that arose mid-trial. The employee appealed. After its review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded: (1) the superior court did not abuse its discretion in denying the employee’s post-trial motion to amend his complaint; (2) the court did not clearly err in its application of a conditional business privilege or in its finding that the defamation did not cause the employee’s damages; and (3) the court did not clearly err in its award of damages. View "Burton v. Fountainhead Development, Inc." on Justia Law

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School bus driver and appellant Jonathan Bockus injured his back moving a gate. He had two spinal surgeries, and his surgeon ultimately recommended a third. About the same time, the driver’s employer scheduled a medical examination, which delayed the planned surgery: the driver’s surgeon would not schedule the surgery while the employer’s medical evaluation was pending. So the driver filed a workers’ compensation claim for the third surgery, and the employer’s doctor ultimately agreed another surgery was appropriate. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board awarded the driver his attorney’s fees under AS 23.30.145(b), finding the employer had resisted these benefits, but the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission reversed the fee award. The Supreme Court concluded there was substantial evidence supporting the Board’s finding and therefore reinstated the award. View "Bockus v. First Student Services" on Justia Law

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Providence Alaska Medical Center terminated Dr. Michael Brandner’s hospital privileges without notice and an opportunity to be heard after determining he had violated hospital policy by failing to report an Alaska State Medical Board order requiring him to undergo an evaluation of his fitness to practice medicine. Brandner unsuccessfully challenged this action through Providence’s internal post-termination hearing and appeal procedures. Brandner then sued in superior court, seeking reinstatement and damages for, in relevant part, alleged due process violations both in the procedures used and in the substantive standard applied in his termination. The superior court ruled that Brandner’s due process rights were not violated, that he was not entitled to reinstatement, and that under federal law Providence was entitled to immunity from his damages claims. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision concerning the substantive standard applied to terminate Brander; he therefore was not entitled to reinstatement or post-termination-hearing damages. But Brandner’s due process rights were violated by the procedures Providence employed because was not given required notice and a hearing prior to the termination of his hospital privileges; the Court therefore reversed the superior court’s decision on the pre-termination notice and hearing claim and its decision that Providence had damages immunity from this claim. View "Brandner v. Providence Health & Services - Washington" on Justia Law

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Peter Metcalfe was employed briefly by the State in the early 1970s and contributed to the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS). In 1981, Metcalfe took a refund of his PERS contributions. Under a statute in effect at the time, if Metcalfe later secured State employment and returned his refund to PERS with interest, he was entitled to reinstate at his prior PERS service tier and credit. But in 2005 the legislature repealed that statute, leaving a five-year grace period for regaining State employment and reinstating to a prior PERS status. The State then sent notice to former PERS members that “[d]efined benefit members who do not return to covered employment before July 1, 2010 will forfeit their defined benefit tier and all service associated with the refund.” In 2012 Metcalfe inquired about his PERS status. He was informed that even if he were to regain State employment, he could not reinstate to his prior PERS service tier and credit because under the new statute, his grace period for reinstatement ended in 2010. In June 2013 Metcalfe brought a putative class action lawsuit against the State, alleging that the 2005 legislation: (1) violated article XII, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution; (2) deprived a class of former employees of their vested interest in the contractual “benefit to be reinstated to state employment at the tier level they previously held”; and (3) effectively breached the class members’ employment contracts. Metcalfe sought damages, but he also asked for a seemingly mutually exclusive declaratory judgment that the State must comply with former AS 39.35.350. The class was never certified. The State moved to dismiss Metcalfe’s lawsuit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The superior court tentatively rejected the argument that Metcalfe failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, rejected the argument that Metcalfe’s claim was not ripe and that he lacked standing, but dismissed Metcalfe’s claim as time barred. Metcalfe appealed, and the State cross-appealed the superior court’s ruling that Metcalfe’s claim was ripe and argued that the superior court’s decision could be upheld on the ground that Metcalfe lacked standing to sue. The Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of the contract damages claim on the alternative ground that no such claim existed; the Court reversed and remanded the declaratory and injunctive relief claim for further proceedings. View "Metcalfe v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A worker whose Alaska workers’ compensation case was closed in 1977 filed a new claim in 2012 related to his injury from the 1970s. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board dismissed the new claim, and he appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission. The Commission granted the worker three extensions of time to file his brief and later issued an order to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed. The Commission dismissed the appeal, relying on its interpretation of a Board regulation. Finding that the interpretation of that regulation was made in error, the Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision. View "Eder v. M-K Rivers" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (the Department or the State) terminated the employment of seafood inspector Ernest Thomas following a contentious airport inspection that resulted in complaints by a seafood processor and an airline. Thomas contended his termination was actually in retaliation for an ethics complaint he had filed over a year earlier against the agency’s director. The superior court decided most of the inspector’s claims against him on summary judgment but allowed one claim, alleging a violation of his free speech rights, to go to trial. The jury found that the ethics complaint was not a substantial or motivating factor in the inspector’s termination, and the superior court entered final judgment for the agency. On appeal, Thomas argued the superior court erred in granting summary judgment, in denying his motion for a new trial based on allegations of jury misconduct, and in awarding attorney’s fees to the agency. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Thomas v. Dept. of Environmental Conservation" on Justia Law

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Floyd Cornelison injured his back at work in 1996 while shoveling dirt. He had back surgery later that year, but it did little to improve his condition. The Board found he was permanently and totally disabled (PTD) in 2001 under the "odd-lot doctrine." TIG Insurance, the workers’ compensation insurer for Floyd’s employer, did not contest that he was PTD; it reclassified his workers’ compensation benefits as PTD in 2000. Floyd also received Social Security disability payments, and the employer received an offset for those payments. The employer and TIG challenged Cornelison's continuing eligibility for workers’ compensation, relying on surreptitious video surveillance and a doctor’s report issued after the doctor viewed an edited surveillance video. Cornelison and his wife sued TIG and a number of others involved in the attempt to terminate benefits; they alleged several causes of action, contending that the video had been purposely edited to provide a false picture of the employee’s physical abilities and that the defendants had participated to varying degrees in a scheme to defraud the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. The trial court granted summary judgment or dismissal as to all of the defendants on all counts. After review of the matter, the Supreme Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part. The Court concluded the Cornelisons provided enough evidence to show that a material factual dispute existed about the accuracy of the edited videos and the manner in which the videos were created. They also presented more than generalized claims of emotional distress. Because the superior court failed to address the issues in dispute in the IIED claim against certain persons involved with the making of the videos, we reverse the grant of summary judgment on this claim and remand to the superior court. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Cornelison v. TIG Insurance" on Justia Law

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Before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission was created, an Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decision could be appealed to the superior court, and a party dissatisfied with the superior court’s final resolution of the case then could appeal to the Supreme Court. Construing the appellate rules, the Supreme Court decided in "Borough of Juneau v. Thibodeau," "a decision of a superior court, acting as an intermediate appellate court, which reverses . . . the decision of an administrative agency and remands for further proceedings, is a non-final order of the superior court." Joseph Huit worked for Ashwater Burns, Inc. in 2010. Early in November he was working on a remodel project, and as part of the job he removed a water-damaged vanity from a bathroom. As he was carrying the vanity he scratched his abdomen on a protruding drywall screw; he showed the scratch to some people at the job site, including his brother Steven, but did not file a report of injury. According to Huit at some point later in November the scratch appeared to heal. In early December, Huit felt ill at work, so he went to the emergency room. He would later be diagnosed with “spontaneous endocarditis” with metastatic lesions growing on his spleen, kidneys, brain and heart. By January 2011 Huit had severe aortic regurgitation, and in February he underwent aortic valve replacement surgery. Huit first thought about the possibility that the infection was work related while he was hospitalized; he explained that after the doctors told him he had an infection, he remembered the scratch and notified his employer. Ashwater Burns filed a report of injury on December 21 and later controverted benefits, relying on a cardiologist’s opinion formed after reviewing Huit’s medical records. This appeal presented the Supreme Court's first opportunity to consider whether "Thibodeau," should apply to Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission decisions. After review, the Court concluded that it should. This appeal also presented a first opportunity to consider, at least in part, the legislature’s 2005 amendments to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s presumption analysis. The Court reversed the Commission’s application of that analysis in this case and modified its earlier precedent. View "Huit v. Ashwater Burns, Inc." on Justia Law