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The Supreme Court of Alaska on Friday clarified that Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission awards can come with enhanced attorneys’ fees for claimants who are successful in their appeals.
The ruling in Sandra J. Rusch and Brenda Dockter v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and Alaska National Insurance Co. is a consolidated appellate decision based on the commission’s decision to “award far less in attorney’s fees than the claimants sought” in their cases stemming from workplace injuries.
The court reversed an earlier finding that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act does not authorize the commission to enhance awards with applicable attorney’s fees for injured workers and found that “(b)efore the Commission was created, we allowed enhanced attorney's fees in workers’ compensation appeals.”
The Commission’s main objections to the claimants’ request for enhanced fees were that we had not mandated enhanced fees in appellate workers’ compensation cases and that they were inconsistent with legislative intent that the “workers compensation claims be resolved, in part, at a cost reasonable to the employer.”
The Commission also expressed concern that enhanced fees might dissuade employers from appealing Board decisions, presumably because the fees awarded to a claimant successfully defending those decisions might be higher. The Commission also worried that enhanced fees would encourage appeals of “minor or even frivolous issues” because if the claimant were successful on the minor issues, the attorney “potentially would receive a very large [fee] award,” according to the court record.
The state’s highest court disagreed, writing, we “have previously decided the legislature intended attorney's fees in Commission appeals to be comparable to fees awarded under the appellate rules; we thus hold that the Act authorizes enhanced awards for work before the Commission as a means of accounting for the contingent nature of representing workers’ compensation claimants.”