Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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This case involved prisoner Richard DeRemer's pro se appeal of the superior court’s dismissal of his civil complaint against three Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) employees. DeRemer alleged numerous violations of his constitutional rights, and he requested declaratory relief and damages. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint addressing some, but not all, of DeRemer's claims. Specifically, the defendants did not address his First Amendment retaliation claim or request for declaratory relief. The court relied on this motion and dismissed the prisoner’s claims “for the reasons set forth in defendants’ motion,” failing to provide any independent analysis of the prisoner’s claims. Because the court, by adopting the defendants’ reasoning, failed to address all of the prisoner’s claims, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the court’s order with respect to the First Amendment retaliation claim and remanded for further proceedings. The Supreme Court affirmed the court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s other claims. View "DeRemer, III v. Turnbull" on Justia Law

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Luciano G. appealed a court order involuntarily committing him for mental health treatment. He argued the court erred in making two findings: (1) that as a result of his mental illness he posed a risk of harm to others; and (2) that there was no less restrictive alternative to committing him to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API). He contended his conduct did not meet the statutory criteria of “likely to cause serious harm” and that there was insufficient evidence presented that there was no less restrictive alternative for his treatment. Because the Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court’s findings were supported by clear and convincing evidence, and the superior court properly determined that the man’s conduct met the statutory criteria, it affirmed the commitment order. View "In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of Luciano G." on Justia Law

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Two prisoners in Alaska Department of Corrections’ (DOC) custody were placed in administrative segregation pending an investigation and disciplinary proceedings related to an alleged escape attempt. The disciplinary decisions were later overturned on appeal to the superior court based on procedural defects. However, the prisoners had lost their Prison Industries jobs because of the administrative segregation placements. They filed a civil suit against two DOC officers in superior court, alleging due process violations and seeking damages for lost wages and property. The case was removed to federal court; the federal judge ruled that the inmates lacked a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs and that the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Meanwhile, the prisoners filed another complaint in the superior court, this time naming the officers in both their official and individual capacities and raising due process claims under both the United States and Alaska Constitutions. After both parties cross-moved for summary judgment, the superior court granted summary judgment for the DOC officers, finding that although the federal judgment did not bar the prisoners’ complaint under the doctrine of res judicata, their constitutional claims lacked merit and the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The prisoners appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing they had a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs; that this interest was clearly established and therefore precludes a qualified immunity defense; that the superior court made various procedural errors; and that it did not adequately instruct the unrepresented prisoners on how to pursue their claims. Because the Supreme Court found the administrative segregation hearings conducted by DOC satisfied any due process requirements to which the prisoners may have been entitled, and because the superior court did not abuse its discretion in any of its procedural rulings, it affirmed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment. View "Smith v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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After 36 years of service with the Alaska Railroad Corporation, most of those years as a conductor, Harry Ross, an African-American man, applied for a newly created managerial trainmaster position, but he was not chosen. He brought an unsuccessful internal racial discrimination complaint. He brought a similar complaint before the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, and it was denied. He then appealed to the superior court, and it ultimately affirmed the Commission’s determination that he had failed to carry his burden of showing racial discrimination. On appeal to us, the man contends that the Railroad’s stated reasons for not hiring him were pretextual. Although the Alaska Supreme Court found some basis for Ross’ arguments that a hiring panel member may have harbored racial prejudice and that the explanation that he was not chosen because of poor interview performance was a post-hoc rationalization, the Court reviewed the Commission’s determination only for substantial supporting evidence. Under this deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court concluded the evidence detracting from the Commission’s determination was not dramatically disproportionate to the supporting evidence. Because substantial evidence in the record thus supported the Commission’s determination, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision upholding it. View "Ross v. Alaska Human Rights Commission" on Justia Law

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An inmate representing himself sued the prison superintendent and chaplain for violating his religious rights by providing an inadequate halal diet, banning scented prayer oils, and not allowing him to have additional religious texts in his cell beyond the prison’s limit. He claimed these actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of both the Alaska Constitution and the federal Constitution, and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The inmate also sought reimbursement for scented oils that the prison had destroyed. The superior court granted the prison officials’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the inmate’s claims. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed summary judgment on the inmate’s RLUIPA claim regarding the halal diet because the inmate did not receive adequate guidance on how to file affidavits in opposition to the summary judgment motion. The Court also reversed summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim regarding scented oils because the prison officials failed to satisfy their burden of proving that banning such oils was the least restrictive means to address their substantial interest in maintaining prison security and health. The Court affirmed dismissal of the inmate’s claims regarding the religious book limit because the issue was not yet ripe. And the Court vacated the award of attorney’s fees and costs. View "Leahy v. Conant" on Justia Law

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Randell Jackson was charged with disorderly conduct, assault, and resisting arrest after a 2012 interaction with three police officers in Haines, Alaska. Amy Williams, an assistant district attorney, first prosecuted Jackson on these charges, but her efforts resulted in a mistrial. James Scott, the Juneau district attorney, oversaw the second round of proceedings against Jackson, which led to his conviction and sentencing. Jackson appealed his convictions in March 2016 to the superior court, which reversed his conviction for disorderly conduct but affirmed his assault and resisting arrest convictions. Jackson brought civil claims against the prosecutors who secured his convictions, alleging they committed various torts and violated his constitutional right to due process. The superior court dismissed his state and federal claims, concluding that the prosecutors enjoyed absolute immunity. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the prosecutors were protected by absolute immunity from both the state and federal claims because they were acting in their official capacity as advocates for the State when they committed the acts that gave rise to the complaint. View "Jackson v. Borough of Haines, et al." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied a Bryce Warnke-Green's request that his employer pay for a van modified to accommodate his work-related disability. On appeal, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission decided that a modifiable van was a compensable medical benefit. Warnke-Green moved for attorney’s fees. The Commission reduced the attorney’s hourly rate, deducted a few time entries, and awarded him less than half of what was requested. Warnke-Green asked the Commission to reconsider its award, but the Commission declined to do so because of its view that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) allowed it to reconsider only the final decision on the merits of an appeal. The Alaska Supreme Court granted Warnke-Green's petition for review, and held that the Commission had the necessarily incidental authority to reconsider its non-final decisions. The Court also reversed the Commission’s award of attorney’s fees and remanded for an award that was fully compensable and reasonable. View "Warnke-Green v. Pro-West Contractors, LLC" on Justia Law

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Raymond Leahy was a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center (Goose Creek). He was a practicing Muslim and identified himself as the Imam of the “Ummah of Incarcerated Alaskan Muslims.” He sued two prison superintendents, claiming that a mail policy instituted by the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his religious rights because it prohibited him from writing letters to fellow Muslims in two other prisons. He asked for damages and a declaratory judgment that the mail policy violated the Alaska Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The DOC rescinded the policy while the case was pending. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the superintendents, finding that the prisoner was not entitled to damages because the superintendents had not been personally involved in creating the policy and that his claims for non-monetary relief were mooted by the policy’s rescission. The prisoner appeals. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision that the prisoner is not entitled to damages, though on different grounds: the superintendents were entitled to qualified immunity because the prisoner’s right to a religious exception from the mail policy was not “clearly established” under existing law. The Court also affirmed the superior court’s decision that the prisoner’s claim for declaratory relief was moot. View "Leahy v. Conant" on Justia Law

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A former employee of the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), Terri Reynolds-Rogers, brought a wrongful discharge suit against the State. At the time of her termination she had four union grievances pending against DHSS, and her union filed another based on the termination. The union settled all five grievances in exchange for a payment to the employee. She later sued DHSS for wrongful termination, alleging both breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and several torts, including retaliatory discharge and failure to accommodate her disabilities. The superior court granted DHSS’s motion for summary judgment and entered final judgment against the employee. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court was correct in deciding that the employee’s claims were resolved by the settlement of her grievances, were barred by the statute of limitations, or were legally insufficient in light of the undisputed facts. View "Reynolds-Rogers v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law

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Kevin Patterson has been incarcerated since 2013, having been convicted after a bench trial of seven counts of possession of child pornography. In May 2015 Patterson filed a 121-page civil complaint in superior court in Juneau. The complaint named as defendants the governor and his predecessor, the Alaska Legislature, a state senator, the then-current and two former attorneys general, an assistant attorney general, an attorney with the Office of Public Advocacy, and the State of Alaska. The complaint alleged that these state officials and entities had “directly harmed . . . Patterson in numerous ways and [had] violated his Constitutional Rights over and over.” It sought damages for Patterson’s incarceration, violence and emotional distress he allegedly suffered while in prison, and the alleged denial of medical care. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of Patterson’s complaint, holding a civil suit for damages allegedly caused by a criminal conviction or sentence may not be maintained if judgment for the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of the conviction or sentence, unless the conviction or sentence has first been set aside in the course of the criminal proceedings. The Court also rejected Patterson’s claim that the superior court demonstrated an unfair bias against him. View "Patterson v. Walker" on Justia Law