Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
Office of Public Advocacy v. Berezkin f/n/a Smith et al.
The Alaska Supreme Court granted the Office of Public Advocacy’s (OPA) petition for review of whether counsel provided through Alaska Legal Service Corporation’s (ALSC) pro bono program was counsel “provided by a public agency” within the meaning of Flores v. Flores, 598 P.2d 890 (Alaska 1979) and OPA’s enabling statute. The Supreme Court concluded such counsel was indeed “provided by a public agency” and affirmed the superior court’s order appointing OPA to represent an indigent parent in a child custody case. View "Office of Public Advocacy v. Berezkin f/n/a Smith et al." on Justia Law
Layton v. Dea
Orville Jenkins appealed a superior court’s division of property following his divorce. The Alaska Supreme Court rejected his arguments that the superior court: (1) improperly denied his motion to continue trial; (2) incorrectly allocated marital debt to him; (3) improperly authorized sale of the marital home before finalizing the property division; and (4) showed bias against him. But the Supreme Court agreed with his arguments that it was error to: (1) decline to consider whether his wife’s separate property was transmuted to marital property through contract; and (2) find that no portion of earnings on the wife’s separate investments was marital when the taxes on those earnings were paid with marital funds. The judgment was thus reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Layton v. Dea" on Justia Law
Aparezuk v. Schlosser
A married couple with two children legally separated. They agreed the father would pay the mother child support while they lived at separate residences and alternated custody of the children. This arrangement was incorporated into a separation decree. But instead of living apart, the couple continued to live together with the children at the marital home. During this time, the father paid the majority of the household expenses, but never paid the agreed-upon court-ordered child support. After three years of maintaining this arrangement, the couple divorced and the mother sought to collect the father’s accrued child support arrears. The father moved to preclude collection under Alaska Civil Rule 90.3(h)(3), and the superior court granted his motion. The mother appealed, contending that the plain language of Rule 90.3(h)(3) required an obligor-parent to exercise primary physical custody of a child before preclusion can apply. The Alaska Supreme Court noted it had previously recognized that the equitable principles underlying Rule 90.3(h)(3) could support preclusion in some circumstances that do not fit neatly within the Rule’s plain language. Because these principles applied to the unique circumstances of this case, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order precluding collection of the arrears. View "Aparezuk v. Schlosser" on Justia Law
Alaska Dept. Health & Soc. Serv. v. C.A., et al.
In two separate cases, an Alaska superior court decided that it could not terminate parental rights to children with alleged Indian heritage without cultural expert testimony, and that the cultural expert testimony presented was too vague and generalized to be helpful. Although it was error to construe the Alaska Supreme Court precedent to require cultural expert testimony in every ICWA case, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision to require expert testimony based on its explanation that it could not competently weigh the evidence of harm in these cases without cultural context. And because the cultural expert testimony presented did not provide a meaningful assessment of tribal social and cultural standards and was not grounded in the facts of these particular cases, the Supreme Court held the court did not clearly err by giving the testimony no weight. The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's decision to deny termination of parental rights in each case. View "Alaska Dept. Health & Soc. Serv. v. C.A., et al." on Justia Law
Notti v. Hoffman
A divorcing couple settled their property dispute by executing a settlement agreement that included a litigation waiver. The superior court accepted the settlement five months later. The former wife subsequently sued her former husband, alleging tort claims based upon actions taken in the months between the time the agreement was executed and when it was accepted. The superior court granted the husband's motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. The wife appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that one of the torts alleged by the wife did not exist in Alaska, so the Court affirmed dismissal of that claim. However, because the settlement agreement was effective between the parties when signed, even though it was subject to court approval, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment regarding the other torts and remanded for further proceedings on those issues. View "Notti v. Hoffman" on Justia Law
Wright v. Dropik
A man filed suit against a former romantic partner to resolve disputes about property acquired during their relationship. The superior court ruled the parties had been in a domestic partnership (a marriage-like relationship) with implications for division of the parties’ property when the relationship ended. It then determined the woman owed the man for his contributions toward a Wasilla property they jointly bought and improved, an out-of-state property acquired in his name that was later sold at a loss, and veterinary bills charged to the man’s credit card. Although the Alaska Supreme Court determined it was error to determine the parties were in a domestic partnership without making predicate factual findings, this error did not affect the superior court’s ruling on the Wasilla property or veterinary bills, and the superior court’s decision on those points was affirmed. But the Court concluded the error could affect the ruling on the out-of-state property, so the case was remanded for additional proceedings on that issue. View "Wright v. Dropik" on Justia Law
Mona J. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvcs.
The superior court terminated a mother’s parental rights to her two children. Because the children were Indian children under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was required to make active efforts to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the family before the mother’s rights could be terminated. The superior court found clear and convincing evidence that OCS satisfied this requirement, although OCS’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. The mother appealed, challenging the active efforts finding. She asked the Alaska Supreme Court to overturn precedent allowing courts to consider a parent’s noncooperation and the resulting futility of OCS’s actions when determining whether OCS satisfied the active efforts standard. In the alternative, she argued that even under existing law the superior court’s active efforts finding was erroneous. After review, the Supreme Court agreed with the mother that the court erred by stating that active efforts “are dependent on [the mother’s] willingness to engage”; the active efforts inquiry depends primarily on OCS’s efforts, not the parent’s reaction to those efforts. The Court took an opportunity to clarify the extent to which a parent’s noncooperation was relevant to the active efforts analysis. "And although we disagree in part with the superior court’s approach in this case, we independently conclude that OCS’s efforts satisfy the active efforts standard," therefore affirming the termination order. View "Mona J. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvcs." on Justia Law
Rainer v. Poole
Ryan Poole and Laramie Rainer had a child in June 2013. Poole and Rainer’s relationship ended in late 2013. Poole was incarcerated from March 2013 to October 2014. In December 2013, when the child was six months old and Poole was still incarcerated, Rainer sought sole legal and primary physical custody. Poole requested joint legal and physical custody and visitation every weekend until he was out of prison. While no custody order was in place, Poole asserted on several occasions that Rainer did not facilitate sufficient visitation with the child following the end of their relationship. A custody trial took place in February 2015. The court found both parties on equal footing with regard to most of the statutory best interests factors. The court ruled that Rainer should have primary physical custody but that Poole’s time with the child should be increased. It issued a custody order in March 2015 awarding joint legal custody and primary physical custody to Rainer while Poole lived outside of Anchorage. Poole was given unsupervised visitation that gradually increased from six hours per week to one week per month. In November 2017 Poole moved to enforce the court’s March 2015 order, claiming that despite attempting to contact Rainer to set up visitation, Rainer ignored his messages and calls since March 2015 and, as a result, he had seen his child only twice since the March 2015 court order. In September 2018 Poole again moved to enforce the March 2015 order, claiming again that Rainer was not responding to phone calls, and “only two visitations were successful.” In June 2020 Poole moved to modify physical custody. The superior court ultimately found a substantial change due to poor communication and one parent interfering with the other’s visits. However, because the Alaska Supreme Court lacked sufficient factual findings to determine whether there was a substantial change in circumstances or whether a lesser sanction would have ensured compliance with the court’s custody order, it reversed and remanded for additional findings. View "Rainer v. Poole" on Justia Law
Park v. Spayd
In 2019 a woman sued her former husband’s medical provider, alleging that from 2003 to 2010 the provider negligently prescribed the husband opioid medications, leading to his addiction, damage to the couple’s business and marital estate, the couple’s divorce in 2011, and ultimately the husband's death in 2017. The superior court ruled the claims were barred by the statute of limitations and rejected the woman’s argument that the provider should have been estopped from relying on a limitations defense. Because the undisputed evidence shows that by 2010 the woman had knowledge of her alleged injuries, the provider’s alleged role in causing those injuries, and the provider’s alleged negligence, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the claims accrued at that time and were no longer timely when filed in 2019. And because the record did not show that the woman’s failure to timely file her claims stemmed from reasonable reliance on fraudulent conduct by the provider, the Supreme Court concluded that equitable estoppel did not apply. View "Park v. Spayd" on Justia Law
Dapo v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs
Appellant Raymond Dapo filed suit against his adoptive mother for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred 13 years earlier. He then agreed to release the adoptive mother from liability in exchange for her filing a third-party equitable apportionment claim against the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and assigning the claim to him. OCS challenged the validity of this assignment. The superior court agreed with OCS that the assignment of the adoptive mother’s apportionment claim was void; it invalidated the assignment, dismissed the claim with prejudice, and awarded OCS attorney’s fees. Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because a defendant prosecuting a third-party equitable apportionment claim possessed nothing in the claim itself that could be assigned, such claims are not assignable, and the Court affirmed the superior court’s invalidation of the assignment in this case. But the Supreme Court also concluded that it was error to dismiss the apportionment claim with prejudice; the Court thus vacated the order of dismissal and remanded for the court to provide the adoptive mother a reasonable time to decide whether to pursue the claim herself. View "Dapo v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs" on Justia Law