Supreme Court of Alaska (2022)
In Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, S-18038, 2022 WL 4588776 (Alaska Sept. 30, 2022), the supreme court held that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) authorizes the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission (the Commission) to award successful workers’ compensation claimants enhanced attorneys’ fees. (Id. at *1). One attorney represented two claimants, Rusch and Dockter, in workers’ compensation proceedings before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board (the Board). (Id.). Both claimants experienced separate injuries, but the claims were against the same employer. (Id.). The Board awarded much less in attorneys’ fees than the claimants requested, and the Commission affirmed that ruling. (Id.). The claimants appealed the Commission’s holding, and the supreme court reversed the Commission’s determinations and remanded with instructions for the Board to consider factors outlined in the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct to assess reasonable fees. (Id.). Additionally, the claimants requested enhanced attorneys’ fees for the work conducted in pursuant of the initial appeal to the Commission at an hourly rate of $600. (Id. at *1, *2). On remand, the Commission declined to apply a fee enhancement because the supreme court did not require them to do so and because enhanced fees would go against the Act, which mandates resolution of workers’ compensation claims imposing only reasonable costs to the employer. (Id. at *3). Again, claimants appealed to the supreme court. (Id.). The supreme court disagreed with the Commission’s interpretation of the Act and determined that the Act authorizes enhanced attorneys’ fees, in part, due to the need for claimants to access competent representation. (Id. at *6). The supreme court also relied on precedent which laid out four factors to evaluate when determining whether fee enhancement is appropriate: (1) the attorney’s time spent on the case, (2) the matter’s complexity and novelty, (3) the benefit conferred to client, and (4) the contingent structure of attorneys’ fees and need for attorney compensation. (Id. at *7). Remanding to the Commission, the supreme court held that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act authorizes the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission to award successful workers’ compensation claimants enhanced attorneys’ fees. (Id. at *10).