The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments in four separate cases in Juneau on Tuesday, including one case alleging sexual harassment and retaliation by then-Hoonah Police Chief Jefferson Hankla.
Attorney Douglas Mertz, who represents three female employees of the Hoonah Police Department and a former lieutenant, argued in front of the justices the trial judge wrongly dismissed their case without allowing a jury to hear the evidence.
“In this case, the four plaintiffs presented voluminous evidence of sexual harassment and retaliation by the police chief and the city of Hoonah, and the Superior Court found basically no avenue to relief for any of them,” Mertz said. “... Despite the fact that we placed voluminous evidence in each of the issues justifying to the court to go to jury, the court ruled that it should not go to the jury.”
Mertz alleges that Hankla, who has since resigned, harangued one of the female dispatchers to show him her breasts on a weekly basis for about a year, first when he was a patrol officer and then later when he was the police chief. Mertz said the city of Hoonah ignored sexual harassment complaints against Hankla, as evidenced by a file 2 to 4 inches thick inside the mayor’s desk drawer.
Mertz also alleges Hoonah Police Department Lt. William Mills was forced to resign and leave the community because Mills had opposed Hankla’s application for police chief.
In turn, attorneys for the city of Hoonah and Hankla argued Hankla could not be held liable under the Alaska Human Rights Act because only employers or supervisors can be found in violation of that act, not employees.
“The Alaska Human Rights Act says an employer means a person, including the state and a political subdivision of the state, who has one or more employees in the state. And Mr. Hankla had no employees,” attorney Jan Levy said.
Levy noted, “As Judge Pallenberg said ... if this case was about good conduct in the work place, best practices, or if it was to look at good management or bad management, there might be a different result here. But we have a case here where the plaintiffs have brought serious charges and we have to look at the legal issues.”
Levy’s co-counsel Vance Sanders argued the trial court ruled Mills could not meet the burden of proof to show that his resignation was an involuntary discharge, based on the information the court had then. Since that time, a 25-page affidavit supporting Mills’ claims has been filed. Sanders pointed out Mills gave a three-week notice of his resignation instead of the standard two-week notice.
“Is it reasonable to assume that someone would work an additional week that they didn’t even have to work, if they’ve given proper notice, if things were so intolerable?” Sanders asked, adding Mills previously gave a sworn deposition testifying he resigned voluntarily.
Mertz said during his rebuttal that all this should be up for a jury to decide. In an interview outside the courtroom, he added, “We think it’s absolutely outrageous that the kind of severe sexual harassment and retaliation that occurred in Hoonah can happen and that a trial judge can say, ‘Too bad, you have no remedy.’ And that’s really what happened here. I think what he did in his rulings was say that because there’s no municipal liability and no individual liability on the guy who did it, that it’s essentially open season on female employees of municipalities. If you want to harass a co-worker, you can do it, and you’ll get away with it, and the city won’t be liable either.”
The Supreme Court also heard arguments in three other appeals on Tuesday afternoon. Those involved the termination of a union representation, property division after divorce and a wrongful death action appeal.
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments in cases on a monthly basis in Anchorage, approximately quarterly in Fairbanks and Juneau, and occasionally in other Alaskan communities. The court prefers to hear arguments in the judicial district where the case was heard by the trial court, according to the Alaskan courts website.
The justices only hear oral arguments once, and they also receive written arguments about the cases. Once a justice is assigned to a case, it typically takes between six months and a year for a decision to be reached.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.