Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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Johnny Williams worked for Violeta Baker and her home healthcare services company, Last Frontier Assisted Living, LLC (Last Frontier), from 2004 to 2009. Baker hired Johnny to provide payroll, tax-preparation, bookkeeping, and bill-paying services. She authorized him to make payments from her accounts, both for tax purposes and business expenses, such as payroll. She also gave him general authority to access her checking account and to execute automated clearing house (ACH) transactions from her accounts. In addition, Baker allowed Johnny to write checks bearing her electronic signature. Johnny did not invoice Baker for his labor; rather he and Baker had a tacit understanding that he would pay himself a salary from Baker’s payroll for his services. In 2009 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified Baker that her third-quarter taxes had not been filed and she owed a penalty and interest. Baker contacted Johnny to find out why the taxes had not been filed. When he could not produce a confirmation that he had e-filed them, Baker contacted her son for help. Baker’s son discovered that several checks had been written from Baker’s accounts to Personalized Tax Solutions (a business he maintained) and Deverette. A CPA audited the books and found that Johnny’s services over the time period could be valued between $47,500 and $55,000. Subtracting this from the total in transfers to Johnny, Deverette, and Personalized Tax Solutions resulted in an overpayment to the Williamses of approximately $950,000. A superior court found Deverette and Johnny Williams liable for defrauding Baker, after concluding that both owed her fiduciary duties and therefore had the burden of persuasion to show the absence of fraud. The court totaled fraud damages at nearly five million dollars and trebled this amount under Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). After final judgment was entered against Deverette and Johnny, Johnny died. Deverette appealed her liability for the fraud. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed Deverette’s liability for the portion of the fraud damages that the superior court otherwise identified as her unjust enrichment. But the Court reversed the superior court’s conclusion that she owed Baker a fiduciary duty, and reversed the UTPA treble damages against Deverette. The Court vacated the superior court’s fraud conclusion as to Deverette and remanded for further proceedings. View "Williams v. Baker" on Justia Law

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One morning in March 2011, Nixola Doan went to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital with her adult daughter, Tristana, who was coughing and having trouble breathing. Doan stayed with Tristana for much of the day. Around 7:00 p.m. Tristana’s condition worsened, and Doan was “ushered . . . out” of the room while Tristana was intubated. Doan remained in the waiting area and did not see Tristana again until approximately the time of her death at 11:41 p.m., when Doan reentered the room and saw her daughter’s body. As the personal representative of Tristana’s estate, Doan filed suit against a number of medical providers, alleging malpractice and wrongful death. Doan also brought her own claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Several of the defendants moved for summary judgment on the emotional distress claim, arguing it was legally untenable for Doan to understand, while Tristana was undergoing care, her caregivers were acting negligently. On appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded a viable bystander claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress did not depend on the plaintiff’s contemporaneous realization that the injuries she observed were negligently caused. Therefore, the Court reversed the grant of summary judgment. View "Doan v. Banner Health, Inc." on Justia Law

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Alaska’s medical peer review privilege statute protected discovery of data, information, proceedings, and records of medical peer review organizations, but it did not protect a witness’s personal knowledge and observations or materials originating outside the medical peer review process. A hospital invoked the privilege in two separate actions, one involving a wrongful death suit against a physician at the hospital and the other involving both a medical malpractice claim against the same physician and a negligent credentialing claim against the hospital. In each case the superior court compelled the hospital to disclose materials related to complaints submitted about the physician and to the hospital’s decision to grant the physician medical staff membership. The hospital and the doctor sought the Alaska Supreme Court's review of the discovery orders. Because the Supreme Court concluded these discovery orders compelled the hospital to disclose information protected by the peer review privilege, it reversed the discovery orders in part. Furthermore, the Court held that the false information exception to the privilege provided in AS 18.23.030(b) applied to actions for which the submission of false information was an element of the claim and thus did not apply here. View "Mat-Su Valley Medical Center, LLC v. Bolinder" on Justia Law

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The Alaska state professional licensing division brought an accusation of professional misconduct against a doctor, alleging that he acted incompetently when he prescribed phentermine and thyroid hormone for one of his patients. The division sought disciplinary sanctions against the doctor. After a hearing, an administrative law judge issued a proposed decision concluding that the division had failed to show that the doctor’s conduct fell below the standard of care in his field of practice and that no disciplinary sanctions were warranted. But the Medical Board instead adopted as its decision the proposal for action submitted by the division and revoked the doctor’s medical license. On appeal to the superior court, the case was remanded to the Board for consideration of the doctor’s own late-filed proposal for action. The Board reaffirmed its decision to revoke the doctor’s medical license, and the superior court affirmed that decision. The doctor appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. Because the Medical Board’s decision to revoke the doctor’s medical license was not supported by substantial evidence, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s affirmance of that decision. View "Odom v. Alaska Division of Corporations, Business & Professional Licensing" on Justia Law

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The Alaska professional licensing division brought an accusation of professional misconduct against doctor David Odom, M.D., alleging that he acted incompetently when he prescribed phentermine and thyroid hormone for one of his patients. The division sought disciplinary sanctions against the doctor. Following a hearing, an administrative law judge issued a proposed decision concluding that the division had failed to show that the doctor’s conduct fell below the standard of care in his field of practice and that no disciplinary sanctions were warranted. But the Medical Board instead adopted as its decision the proposal for action submitted by the division and revoked the doctor’s medical license. On appeal to the superior court, the case was remanded to the Board for consideration of the doctor’s own late-filed proposal for action. The Board reaffirmed its decision to revoke the doctor’s medical license, and the superior court affirmed that decision. The doctor appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. Because the Medical Board’s decision to revoke the doctor’s medical license was not supported by substantial evidence, the Court reversed the superior court’s affirmance of that decision. View "Odom v. Alaska Div. of Corporations, Bus. & Prof. Licensing" on Justia Law

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Providence Alaska Medical Center terminated Dr. Michael Brandner’s hospital privileges without an opportunity to be heard after determining he had violated hospital policy by failing to report an Alaska State Medical Board order requiring him to undergo an evaluation of his fitness to practice medicine. Brandner unsuccessfully challenged this action through the hospital's hearing and appeal procedures. Brandner thereafter took his cause to court, seeking reinstatement and damages for the alleged due process violations both in the procedures used and in the substantive standard applied in his termination. The superior court found no such violations and that he was not entitled to reinstatement. Brandner appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that Brandner was not entitled to reinstatement or post-termination-hearing damages. However, the doctor's due process rights were violated when he was not given a hearing following termination of his hospital privileges. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Brandner v. Providence Health & Services" on Justia Law

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Following a disciplinary sanction, a judge was not recommended for retention by the Alaska Judicial Council. Although the judge chose not to campaign, an independent group supported his retention and campaigned on his behalf. After the election the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct filed a disciplinary complaint against the judge and later imposed an informal private admonishment on the judge because he did not publicly address allegedly misleading statements made by the independent group. Because the statements clearly originated with the independent group rather than the judge, and the judge had no knowledge of one statement, the judge had no duty to publicly address any of the statements. Accordingly, we reverse the Commission’s admonishment and dismissed the Commission’s complaint against the judge. View "In Re District Court Judge" on Justia Law

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A client personally financed the sale of his business corporation. His attorney drafted documents that secured the buyer’s debt with corporate stock and an interest in the buyer’s home. Over seven years later the government imposed tax liens on the corporation’s assets; according to the client, it was only then he learned for the first time that his attorney had not provided for a recorded security interest in the physical assets. The client sued the attorney for malpractice and violation of the Alaska Unfair Trade Practice and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). The superior court held that the statute of limitations barred the client’s claims and granted summary judgment to the attorney. But after review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that it was not until the tax liens were filed that the client suffered the actual damage necessary for his cause of action to be complete. Therefore, the Court reversed the superior court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Jones v. Westbrook" on Justia Law

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In early April 2012 the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct (Commission) referred to the Supreme Court its unanimous recommendation for removal of Judge Dennis Cummings, a district court judge in Bethel. However in December 2011, Judge Cummings had announced his retirement and he retired shortly after the Court received the Commission's recommendation. Despite Judge Cummings's retirement, the Court considered this matter a live controversy - a judge's retirement did not extinguish the Commission's and the Supreme Court's jurisdiction to complete disciplinary proceedings, and "there [were] important policy reasons to do so." After independently reviewing the record and the Commission's recommendation to remove Judge Cummings, the Court accepted the Commission's recommendation for removal. View "In Re Cummings" on Justia Law

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A bar served a man alcohol while he was visibly intoxicated, and the man murdered a woman later that evening. The lawyer representing the bar in the subsequent dram shop action did not attempt to add the murderer as a party for apportionment of fault. Following entry of a large judgment against the bar, the bar brought a legal malpractice suit against its attorney. The attorney moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, arguing that where case law is unsettled, as a matter of law an attorney cannot be held liable for an error in judgment. The superior court granted the motion and the bar appealed. "Because the existence of unsettled law does not excuse an attorney from fulfilling a duty of care," the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "L.D.G., Inc. v. Robinson" on Justia Law