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Shea v. State, Dept. of Admin., Div. of Retirement and Benefits

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 10, 2009

Shirley L. SHEA, Appellant,
v.
STATE of Alaska, DEPARTMENT OF ADMINISTRATION, DIVISION OF RETIREMENT AND BENEFITS, Appellee.

Page 1024

Steven J. Priddle, Law Office of Steven J. Priddle, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Brenda Page, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, Virginia B. Ragle, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Talis J. Colberg, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, and WINFREE, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

We consider here whether it was an abuse of discretion not to extend by six days the time for filing a superior court administrative appeal. By order distributed May 21, 2007, the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) denied Shirley Shea's occupational disability benefits claim. On June 20 and June 21, Shea's lawyer attempted to file an

Page 1025

appeal, but was not successful until June 26, 2007, six days after the thirty-day appeal deadline. The superior court denied Shea's requests to accept the appeal, effectively rejecting the appeal as untimely. Because Shea demonstrated good cause for an extension and because there was no showing of prejudice to the state or the court, we hold that it was an abuse of discretion not to extend the appeal deadline under Alaska Appellate Rule 502(b)(2).

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

When Shirley Shea, a state employee, applied for both occupational and non-occupational disability benefits, the administrator found that Shea was eligible only for non-occupational disability benefits. Shea appealed to the Office of Administrative Hearings, and an administrative law judge drafted an opinion denying her appeal. The Office of Administrative Hearings issued an order adopting the draft opinion on May 21, 2007, and on the same day mailed the opinion and order to Shea's attorney, Steven J. Priddle, and to the Assistant Attorney General representing the state. The order adopting the opinion stated that it was the " final administrative determination in this matter" and that judicial review could be obtained " by filing an appeal in the Alaska Superior Court in accordance with Alaska R.App. P. 602(a)(2) within 30 days after the date of this decision."

According to affidavits later filed in the superior court, employees of Priddle's law office first attempted to file Shea's superior court appeal on Wednesday, June 20, thirty days after the administrative opinion and order were mailed. But the court clerk erroneously informed them that the appeal had to be taken to the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board for filing.[1] After then unsuccessfully attempting to file Shea's appeal at the Workers' Compensation Board that same day, the employees returned to the courthouse to try again but arrived after it had closed. On the morning of Thursday, June 21, one of the employees returned to the court and again attempted to file the appeal " but was again refused by the clerk of court because of a caption issue and bond requirement." [2]

In an affidavit, Shea's attorney explained to the superior court that he then intended to file Shea's amended notice of appeal on Monday, June 25, but was unable to do so because his motor home suffered a mechanical failure and left him stranded at Valdez Creek until after the court had closed.

On Tuesday, June 26, 2007, thirty-six calendar days after the administrative order was mailed, Shea's representatives filed the notice of appeal and a motion for late filing. The state opposed the motion. The superior court denied the motion for late filing without prejudice, and invited Shea to file a second motion to accept late filing of appeal demonstrating " good cause" for the late filing.

Shea filed a motion for reconsideration. The motion argued that the deadline for filing was actually June 25, 2007, and that the superior court should relax the thirty-day filing deadline because exigent circumstances prevented Shea's attorney from filing by June 25, resulting in what the motion described as a one-day delay, to June 26. The state opposed the motion, arguing that the deadline for filing was June 20 and that Shea had failed to establish grounds for relaxing Appellate Rule 602(a). The superior court denied the motion for reconsideration. The parties seem to agree that the order denying Shea's motion for reconsideration terminated the administrative appeal.

Shea appealed the denial. On November 5, 2008, we heard oral argument on her appeal, and on November 7 we issued an

Page 1026

order reversing the denial order and remanding with instructions to allow the appeal.[3] This opinion explains why we issued that order.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review


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