Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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After the Department of Corrections (DOC) investigated an allegation that a probation officer was providing special treatment in return for sexual favors and found it to be unsubstantiated, the probation officer sought the investigation records. DOC denied his request and the probation officer appealed to the superior court, which reversed the denial and ordered the records released because the allegation had not been substantiated. DOC appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s order because the records were shielded from disclosure by the invasion of privacy exemption to the Public Records Act. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Porche" on Justia Law

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The employee of a subcontractor on a state public works project sued the prime contractor’s surety bond for unpaid labor under Alaska’s Little Miller Act. The trial court ruled the employee failed to give notice to the contractor within the statutorily required 90 days of his last date of labor on the project. The trial court entered a directed verdict against the employee. The employee appealed to the superior court, which denied the appeal, and then petitioned the Alaska Supreme Court for hearing. This case presented two issues of first impression: (1) how to define “labor;” and (2) whether “notice” was effective on the date of mailing or the date of receipt. Under the Little Miller Act, the Supreme Court defined “labor” as work that was “necessary to and forwards” the project secured by the payment bond, and held the effective date of “notice” to be the date notice is sent via registered mail. The superior court judgment denying the employee's appeal was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Dat Luong DBA LVDH Construction v. Western Surety Co." on Justia Law

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A federal district court certified two questions of law to the Alaska Supreme Court. Schlumberger Technology Corporation was a Texas corporation providing technology services to the oil and gas industry in Alaska. Travis Buntin worked for Schlumberger in Alaska until early 2016. Shortly thereafter Buntin sued Schlumberger in federal court alleging, among other things, failure to pay overtime compensation in violation of the Alaska Wage and Hour Act (AWHA). Schlumberger responded that Buntin was not entitled to overtime compensation because the AWHA exempts individuals employed “in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity” from overtime payment. Responding to the federal court's questions, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that an employer had to prove that an AWHA exemption applied by a preponderance of the evidence, and reversed precedent to the contrary. The Supreme Court also concluded that the interpretive principle in Encino Motorcars v. Navarro, 138 S. Ct. 1134 (2018) that courts must give federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) exemptions a fair interpretation applied when the AWHA text explicitly requires alignment with FLSA interpretations. View "Buntin v. Schlumberger Technology Corporation" on Justia Law

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An Alaska State Commission for Human Rights (State) employee with preexisting medical conditions was involved in a work-related motor vehicle accident in January 2017. The employee consulted with Dr. Teresa Bormann two days after the accident; Dr. Bormann referred the employee to chiropractic treatment. After several month of treatment, Dr. Bormann referred the employee to physical therapy at United Physical Therapy (UPT) for chronic neck pain and headache. After an evaluation UPT recommended eight weeks of twice weekly physical therapy. Dr. Bormann endorsed the treatment plan, and the employee’s symptoms improved enough that she reduced her physical therapy visits to once a week beginning in mid-January. She saw UPT three times in February 2018. Payment for these February visits became the main dispute before the Board. The State arranged an employer’s medical evaluation (EME) with a neurologist and an orthopedist. The EME doctors diagnosed the employee with a cervical strain caused by the accident as well as several conditions they considered preexisting or unrelated to the work injury. After the State filed a retroactive controversion of medical treatment, the employee’s healthcare provider filed a workers’ compensation claim seeking payment for services it provided before the controversion was filed. The State disputed its liability for payment, and after several prehearing conferences, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board set a hearing on the merits of the provider’s claim. The Board ordered the State to pay the provider approximately $510.00 for the services. The State appealed, disputing several procedural aspects of the decision, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services v. Thomas et al." on Justia Law

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Members of the plaintiff class were former Alaska State employees. When they enrolled in the State employee retirement system, a statute provided that if they left eligible employment, withdrew their contributions to the system, and later returned to eligible employment, they could repay their withdrawn contributions, be reinstated to their original benefits level, and have their credited service time restored. The statute was later repealed. The superior court ruled on summary judgment that this repeal did not diminish or impair the former employees’ accrued benefits and was therefore constitutional. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the statutory reinstatement right was an accrued benefit of the retirement system protected against diminishment or impairment by article XII, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution. The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Metcalfe v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Several months after returning from maternity leave, an association’s employee accepted a new special projects position with reduced hours that allowed her to work from home. Later that year she was terminated; the association explained that there were no more special projects for her to work on and the position was no longer necessary. The employee filed suit, alleging that the association had unlawfully discriminated against her based on pregnancy and parenthood. Considering all the evidence before it, the trial court concluded that there were no genuine issues of material fact relevant to the employee’s discrimination claim, and that the association was entitled to summary judgment. The employee appealed, contending the superior court should not have considered the evidence submitted after the filing of the deficient motion and that, even if all evidence was considered, the association was not entitled to summary judgment. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court acted within its discretion by accepting the authenticating affidavit with the association’s reply, and that it properly considered all the evidence before it in granting summary judgment. View "Werba v. Association of Village Council Presidents" on Justia Law

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An employee sued her former employer for wrongful termination. The employee died, but her attorney continued to litigate, negotiate, and mediate the case for another year before informing the court or opposing counsel of her death. The superior court concluded the attorney had committed serious ethical violations related to this delay and disqualified him from the case. Post-disqualification, the attorney filed a motion to substitute the personal representative of the employee’s estate as plaintiff. The superior court issued an order dismissing the case on several grounds. The Alaska Supreme Court found the court did not abuse its discretion by disqualifying the attorney and denying the motion for substitution he submitted. The superior court was correct to dismiss the case, as only one party remained, but the Supreme Court concluded granting summary judgment in favor of the former employer and supervisor was error. "The estate is not entitled to appeal the court’s refusal to enforce a draft settlement agreement signed by the employee before her death and does not have standing to appeal the sanctions imposed against the attorney. But because the estate was not allowed to participate as a party, we conclude that awarding affirmative relief against it was error." View "Bunton v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Corrections investigated its employee David Wilson for potentially criminal misconduct. It ordered him to answer questions from investigators but assured him that his answers and any evidence derived from those answers could not be used against him criminally. Wilson was terminated for refusing to answer and claimed the State violated his constitutional privilege against self­ incrimination by failing to tell his lawyer that his answers to the investigator could not be used against him in a criminal proceeding. After review of his appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that by terminating Wilson for refusing to answer those questions, the State of Alaska did not violate his privilege against self-incrimination, under either the U.S. Constitution or the Alaska Constitution. The State did notify Wilson that his answers could not be used against him criminally, and Wilson not only confirmed at the time that he understood this notification, but also in the subsequent court proceedings introduced no evidence to the contrary. View "Wilson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A worker died at a construction site when a retaining wall collapsed. Neither the putative employer, who claimed the worker was an independent contractor, nor the property owner, who hired the putative employer, had workers’ compensation coverage. The worker’s mother, who also was the personal representative of the worker’s estate, filed both a workers’ compensation claim against the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund and a superior court wrongful death action against both the putative employer and the property owner. The Fund later caused the property owner, the putative employer, and the worker’s father to be joined as parties to the workers’ compensation claim before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board.All parties to the workers’ compensation proceeding, except the putative employer, entered into a settlement agreement; in the settlement the estate elected the wrongful death suit as its remedy, agreed to dismiss the workers’ compensation claim entirely to effectuate its remedy election, received a settlement payment from the property owner’s general liability insurer, and dismissed the wrongful death claim against the property owner. The agreement explicitly preserved the estate’s wrongful death claim against the putative employer. The Board approved the agreement, and the superior court dismissed the property owner from the wrongful death action based on a separate stipulation. The putative employer then sought dismissal of the wrongful death suit, contending that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision precluded the lawsuit because the settlement effectively paid workers’ compensation benefits to the estate. The superior court granted the putative employer summary judgment, relying on the Act to decide that the Board’s approval of the settlement transformed the settlement money into workers’ compensation benefits. Because the superior court misinterpreted the settlement agreement and the Act, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Seal v. Welty d/b/a North Country Services" on Justia Law

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Ge Vue was an asset-protection worker at the Walmart in Eagle River, Alaska in 2016. On February 3, he was shot in the back and face with a pellet gun when he and another asset-protection worker tried to stop three juveniles from taking a cart full of merchandise they had not paid for. No pellets penetrated his back, but one pellet penetrated the skin near his right eye and came to rest in his right orbit, or eye socket, near his optic nerve. He underwent surgery for the injury, and received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. His employer contended that he was not disabled by the psychological injury and, after an ophthalmologist retained by the employer questioned specific pain-related medical care, the employer controverted that treatment. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board granted the worker’s claim for medical care, found the employer had not unfairly or frivolously controverted benefits, and denied the worker’s request for disability during periods of time when his eye doctors said he had the physical capacity to perform asset-protection work. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Vue appealed,, making arguments related to disability and the standard for finding an unfair or frivolous controversion. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, and remanded with instructions to remand to the Board for calculation of benefits and penalty owed to the worker. View "Vue v. Walmart Associates, Inc." on Justia Law