Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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In 2010, Corrections Officer Nelson Robinson was supervising a prison module of about 50 inmates at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, including Radenko Jovanov and Alando Modeste. Modeste approached Jovanov while he was in line for the telephone, and he told Jovanov that he wanted them to request placement in separate modules because Modeste was related by marriage to the victim of Jovanov’s crime. Modeste then punched Jovanov on the left side of the head and pushed his head into the wall, requiring Jovanov to obtain medical treatment for his injuries. Jovanov sued the Department of Corrections (DOC), Officer Robinson, and Modeste for his injuries, alleging: (1) the assault was foreseeable and therefore DOC should have prevented it; (2) Officer Robinson failed to respond promptly to the argument and prevent further injury to Jovanov; and (3) DOC was negligent in understaffing the prison unit and placing the officer’s desk out of view of the telephone. DOC counterclaimed for the cost of the medical treatment Jovanov received. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of Jovanov against Modeste on the issue of liability, and in favor of DOC’s counterclaim for medical costs. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of DOC on Jovanov’s negligence claims against it; the assault was not foreseeable, and therefore DOC cannot be negligent on these grounds. Further, DOC’s staffing decisions and its placement of the guard’s duty station were immune policy decisions that could not form the basis of a negligence claim. The Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of DOC on its counterclaim against Jovanov for the cost of medical care provided to him and remand for further proceedings. The Court also remanded for further proceedings regarding Jovanov’s negligence claim against Modeste. View "Jovanov v. Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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An employee continued to work for over ten years after a job-related knee injury but had multiple surgeries on her injured knee. Over time, her employer made several permanent partial impairment payments, and she was eventually determined to be permanently and totally disabled because of the work injury. She began to receive Social Security disability at about the same time she was classified as permanently and totally disabled for workers’ compensation. Her employer asked the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board to allow two offsets to its payment of permanent total disability (PTD) compensation: one related to Social Security disability benefits and one related to the earlier permanent partial impairment (PPI) payments. The Board established a Social Security offset and permitted the employer to deduct the amount of previously paid PPI. The employee appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, arguing that the Board had improperly applied one of its regulations in allowing the PPI offset and had incorrectly calculated the amount of the Social Security offset. She also brought a civil suit against the State challenging the validity of the regulation. The State intervened in the Commission appeal; the lawsuit was dismissed. The Commission reversed the Board’s calculation of the Social Security offset and affirmed the Board’s order permitting the PPI offset. The employer appealed the Commission’s Social Security offset decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, and the employee cross- appealed the PPI offset. The Court affirmed that part of the Commission’s decision reversing the Board’s calculation of the Social Security disability offset and reversed that part of the Commission’s decision permitting an offset for permanent partial impairment benefits. The case was remanded back to the Commission for further proceedings. View "Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Darrow" on Justia Law

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The City of Houston, Alaska fired its police captain shortly before disbanding its police department. The captain claimed he was terminated in bad faith in order to stop ongoing investigations into city leaders. He challenged: (1) the superior court’s refusal to allow his claim under the Alaska Whistleblower Act; (2) a jury instruction stating that termination for personality conflicts did not constitute bad faith; and (3) an award of attorney’s fees and costs. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the court’s refusal to allow his claim under the Whistleblower Act, its decision to give the personality conflict instruction, and its award of attorney’s fees and costs were not erroneous and therefore affirmed. View "McNally v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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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