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Weekly Summary of Alaska Supreme Court Opinions

We are covering two weeks worth of opinions today.

Last week, the court issued Irby v. Fairbanks Gold Mining, Inc., where it held that a workers’ compensation claim was not untimely when the family of a deceased employee waited until after the five-year presumptive death period expired to file a successful presumptive death petition. The court relied on the fact that the employer had notice of the claim and was not prejudiced by the delay, as well as the fact that the family’s first presumptive death petition, filed soon after the industrial accident in which the employee likely died, had been denied for insufficient evidence. This case was a relatively straight-forward application of the doctrine of equitable tolling, as the employee’s family consistently asserted their rights in a different judicial forum. What is missing from the case is a discussion why the employer denied that the employee had died, given that the employee’s bulldozer was found at the bottom of a tailings pond shortly after the employee (and his bulldozer) disappeared.

This week, the Alaska Supreme Court issued four opinions. In Allen v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Div. of Public Assistance, the court considered whether the State could recover overpayments of food stamps from recipients, where the overpayment was caused by the State’s error. The court held that Alaska’s common law of equitable estoppel, which would normally have barred the State’s claim for repayment, was preempted by federal law, which required the State to recoup overpayments. The court, however, also held that the notice provided by the State to the recipients was insufficient and violated due process, and ordered the State to issue a new notice before seeking reimbursement. The court recommended that, in connection with the new notice, the State consider the hardship the beneficiaries would suffer as a result of the State’s recoupment efforts.

In In the Matter of the Adoption of S.K.L.H., the court addressed whether an adoption could be rescinded based on the birth mother’s misunderstanding as to the level of visitation she would have with the child that was being put up for adoption. The court held that the birth mother’s misunderstanding was not a basis for rescinding the adoption, but that the trial court should determine the proper amount and type of visitation between the birth mother and the child.

Ted W. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, OCS, held that a father whose parental rights had been revoked had no standing to contest a finding that his child was a child in need of aid, even if the child had been temporarily placed in his custody after his parental rights were terminated.

Finally, in Clemensen v. Providence Alaska Medical Center, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s was released by a hospital to her adult daughter. The elderly woman subsequently filed for divorce from her husband. Her husband brought suit against the hospital, claiming economic damages and emotional distress out of the fact that the hospital had promised to release the elderly woman only into his custody. The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the husband’s claims that were based on the divorce filing, finding that, as a matter of law, there is no claim for damages arising out of a divorce. The court also held that the husband’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty, which sought damages independent of his divorce, was barred by the tort statute of limitations.

It is this last finding of the Alaska Supreme Court that is most interesting. In past decisions, the court has consistently applied the contract statute of limitations to claims for breach of fiduciary duty. In Clemensen, however, the court stated in a footnote that the source of the fiduciary duty will determine the proper statute of limitations. Thus, in some breach of fiduciary duty cases, the tort, and not contract, statute of limitations will apply. This is a significant break from prior Alaska case law, and it is surprising that it was done in a footnote, and when such a holding was not necessary to decide the case.