Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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In late 2014 Andy James was working in Deadhorse for Northern Construction & Maintenance, LLC, a company owned by John Ellsworth and members of his family. Ellsworth also owned Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc. Alaska Frontier had some kind of business relationship with Nanuq, Inc. In late December Northern Construction sent James from his usual work assignment to work in some capacity in connection with an ice road being constructed and maintained for Caelus Energy Alaska, LLC. James was instructed to work at the direction of Scott Pleas. Despite dangerous blizzard conditions, Pleas directed James to accompany another worker, Johann Willrich, to check fuel levels on equipment idling outside; James objected due to the weather, but was threatened with the loss of his job if he did not follow the direction. James complied; he climbed a large grader to fuel it, but a wind gust blew him off, resulting in shoulder and spinal injuries. James filed personal injury lawsuits, which were consolidated, against the companies. The companies sought and obtained summary judgment rulings that they had statutory employer immunity from the injury claims under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision. James appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because numerous issues of material fact made it impossible to determine whether the companies were entitled to judgment as a matter of law that they were immune from liability under the Act, summary judgment was reversed, the judgment against James vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "James v. Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc." on Justia Law

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Virgil Adams, a self-described journeyman carpenter, worked sporadically from 2009 to 2011 at a house located on Snow Bear Drive in Anchorage. He suffered a “T12 burst fracture with incomplete spinal cord injury” when he fell from the house’s roof in 2011, and became permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fall. He filed a claim with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, and, because the property owner for whom he worked had no workers’ compensation insurance, the Workers’ Compensation Guaranty Fund was joined to the workers’ compensation case. The Fund disputed whether the property owner for whom the carpenter worked was an “employer” as defined in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act and contended the worker’s intoxication caused the accident. The Board decided the injury was compensable based on two findings: (1) the property owner was engaged in a real-estate-related “business or industry” and (2) the worker’s alleged intoxication did not proximately cause the accident. The Fund appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission; the Commission reversed because, in its view, the Board applied an incorrect legal test in determining whether the property owner was an employer and no evidence in the record could support a determination that the property owner was engaged in a “business or industry” at the time of the injury. The Commission decided the intoxication issue was not ripe for review. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, finding the Board did not legally err and substantial evidence supported its employment-status decision. The matter was remanded to the Commission for consideration of the intoxication issue. View "Adams v. Alaska Workers Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund" on Justia Law

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Allison Leigh broke her ankle when she slipped and fell in her employer’s icy parking lot. Following surgery she had a complicated recovery. Her employer began to controvert benefits related to the ankle about nine months after the injury. Three years after the injury, her employer requested that she sign a release allowing it to access all of her mental health records for the preceding 19 years because of her pain complaints. Leigh asked for a protective order from the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. The Board’s designee granted the protective order, and the employer appealed that decision to the Board. A Board panel reversed the designee’s decision. Leigh petitioned the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission for review, but the Commission declined. The Alaska granted Leigh's petition for review and found that the statute permitted an employer to access the mental health records of employees when it was relevant to the claim, even if the employee did not make a claim related to a mental health condition. This matter was remanded back to the Board for further proceedings to consider reasonable limits on the release at issue here. View "Leigh v. Alaska Children's Services" on Justia Law

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Office worker Sallyanne Butts (f/k/a Decastro) fell from her chair onto her hands and left knee. She initially suffered left knee symptoms and later developed right knee problems and lower back pain that she alleged arose from the fall. She argued the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board erred when it performed its presumption analysis and when it awarded compensation for her left knee and back for only a limited period of time following the accident. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded: the Board appropriately considered the knee injuries and the back injury as distinct injuries and applied the presumption analysis accordingly; that the Board properly relied on the conflicting medical evidence to make its own legal decision about which of Butts’s conditions were compensable; and that the Board was not required to award compensation for knee replacement surgeries performed five years after the accident. The Court therefore affirmed the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission’s decision affirming the Board. View "Butts v. Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development" on Justia Law

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In August 2015, Kiel Cavitt was working for D&D Services, repairing a motor home’s windshield, when he fell from a scaffold onto concrete and fractured his right elbow. He suffered what was known as a “terrible triad” fracture, which had three components: dislocation of the elbow (which can result in ligament injury), fracture of the radial head, and fracture of the ulnar coronoid process. Cavitt had surgery which included an implanted prosthesis for the radial head. The surgeon testified that "typical" complications following terrible triad fracture surgery include pain, decreased range of motion, infection and the "need for further surgery." Cavitt appeared to recover from the surgery, but several months later, he began to experience "shooting electrical pain" in his elbow. Doctors could not determine specifically what was causing the pain, and attempted to manage the pain with medication. Cavitt was unable to return to his former work as a glazier because of restrictions on his use of the arm, and he started a new job delivering pizza. Cavitt sought an order from the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board requiring his employer to pay for medical care for the ongoing elbow issues for the rest of his life. The Board ordered only that the employer “pay future medical costs in accordance with the [Alaska Workers’ Compensation] Act,” and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The Alaska Supreme Court construed the Commission’s decision as requiring the employer to provide periodic surveillance examinations until another cause displaces the work injury as the substantial cause of the need for this continuing treatment, and with that construction - consistent with the medical testimony - the Court affirmed. View "Cavitt v. D&D Services, LLC d/b/a Novus Auto Glass" on Justia Law

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Joseph Traugott suffered from with diabetes and a related foot condition, and developed an infection in his foot while working at a remote site. He required extensive medical treatment for his foot and did not work since developing the infection. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided the worker’s disability and need for medical treatment were compensable based on an expert opinion that work was the sole cause of the condition’s acceleration even if work was not the most significant cause of the worker’s overall condition. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission reversed, because in its' view, the Board had asked the expert misleading questions. The Commission then concluded, based on a different opinion by the same expert, that the worker had not provided sufficient evidence to support his claim. Traugott appealed, raising issues about the interpretation of the new causation standard adopted in the 2005 amendments to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) and its application to his case. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision and remanded for reinstatement of the Board’s award. View "Traugott v ARCTEC Alaska" on Justia Law

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A police officer applied for a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) for several years when he was not eligible to receive one. Following an investigation, the Executive Director of the Alaska Police Standards Council petitioned the Council to revoke the officer’s police certificate on the ground that he lacked good moral character. An administrative law judge recommended against revoking the certificate, finding that the officer’s mistakes were not sufficient to demonstrate dishonesty or a lack of respect for the law. The Council, however, concluded that the officer’s hearing testimony - that he would fill out the applications in the same way if he had to do it over again - showed dishonesty and a lack of respect for the law, and it therefore revoked his certificate. The superior court agreed with the administrative law judge’s analysis of the evidence and the law and reversed the Council’s decision. The Council appeals. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the evidence disproportionately supported the finding of the administrative law judge that the police officer’s PFD applications and hearing testimony, while mistaken about the law, were not sufficient to raise substantial doubts about the officer’s good moral character. The Court affirmed the superior court's decision reversing the Council's revocation of the police certificate. View "Alaska Police Standards Council v. Maxwell" on Justia Law

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Gregory Weaver worked at remote sites for ARCTEC Alaska1 off and on for several years as a relief station mechanic. His job involved heavy labor, and he filed several reports of injury during the times he worked for ARCTEC. He reported in December 2010 that he had “pulled something in the lower spinal area” while adjusting tire chains on a dump truck. He filed another injury report related to his back in early 2012, after he experienced back pain while installing garage door panels. Weaver passed “fit for duty” physical examinations after both of these injuries. In 2013, however, he woke up one morning with back pain that made it hard for him to walk. He said his back pain “had been building up for several months,” but he could not identify a specific task related to the onset of pain. He said “the majority of the heavy lifting” he did that summer had been at Indian Mountain, but he described work at Barter Island as including significant shoveling and pushing wheelbarrows of rocks over difficult surfaces. He thought the camp bed provided inadequate back support. He asked to be flown out because of his back pain and has not worked since. Weaver began receiving About six months later his employer controverted all benefits based on a medical opinion that the work caused only workers’ compensation benefits after experiencing severe low back pain at a remote job site. About six months later his employer controverted all benefits based on a medical opinion that the work caused only a temporary aggravation of a preexisting condition. Weaver the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board to join a prior back injury claim against the same employer. Following a lengthy and complex administrative process, the Board denied the worker’s claim for additional benefits, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Board's and Commission's decisions. View "Weaver v. ASRC Federal Holding Co." 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

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An attorney began representing two injured workers after both encountered difficulties representing themselves in their workers’ compensation claims against the same employer. Both claimants then successfully resolved their claims through mediation, with both receiving substantial settlements. The parties were unable to resolve the question of their attorney’s fees, so the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board held hearings on that issue. The Board limited the witnesses at the hearings and ultimately awarded significantly reduced attorney’s fees in both claims. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decisions. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission incorrectly interpreted Alaska case law about attorney’s fees, because the Board denied the claimants the opportunity to present witnesses, and because the amount of attorney’s fees awarded to both claimants was manifestly unreasonable, the Supreme Court reversed in part the Commission’s decisions and remanded for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law