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Anderson v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 19, 2019

THOMAS I. ANDERSON SR., Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF ADMINISTRATION, DIVISION OF MOTOR VEHICLES, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska Court No. 3 AN-17-06733 CI, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Erin B. Marston, Judge.

          Appearances: Thomas I. Anderson Sr., pro se, Anchorage, Appellant.

          Michael A. Stanker, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, and Maassen, Justices. [Carney, Justice, not participating.]

          OPINION

          Maassen, Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A motorist appeals the superior court's dismissal of his claim that the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) failed to properly transfer a motorcycle endorsement from his California driver's license to his new Alaska license in 1992. The court decided that the motorist's claim, filed in 2017, was barred by the statute of limitations, the doctrines of laches and exhaustion of administrative remedies, and the governing DMV regulations. The court also awarded the DMV attorney's fees calculated pursuant to the Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(2) schedule. The motorist appeals.

         We affirm the superior court's decision primarily on laches grounds. The motorist filed his claim 25 years after the DMV's alleged mistake, long past the time the DMV could reasonably be expected to have retained any evidence relevant to its defense. We also affirm the award of attorney's fees, which the motorist did not oppose in the superior court, because the scheduled award is not plainly erroneous.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         This case was decided on the pleadings; we therefore take as true the following allegations of the complaint.[1] Thomas I. Anderson Sr. completed a "Motorcycle Safety Rider's Course" at Fort Ord, California, in 1983, while he was serving in the military. As a result he "[w]as certified through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation" and was "informed... that the certification was good in all 50" states. He moved to Alaska in 1987, and his California driver's license, with its motorcycle endorsement, allowed him to continue operating his motorcycle legally on Alaska's roads as long as he continued on active military duty.

         Anderson was discharged in 1992 and acquired an Alaska driver's license. Although he did not notice at the time, his Alaska license "did not reflect the motorcycle endorsement that was on the California [l]icense," and the DMV failed to inform him that the endorsement was not transferred "or that there were other requirements to continue to operate his motorcycle on Alaska['s] highways and/or roads." Anderson nonetheless continued driving his motorcycle until 2007, when he registered a new "motorcycle/scooter" with the DMV and, at about the same time, learned that his license lacked a valid motorcycle endorsement.[2] When he asked for one, the DMV informed him that he needed first "to take a written and road test[] and complete a motorcycle safety rider's course." Anderson took and passed the written test "involuntar[il]y" in 2007, but since then he has declined to take the road test and safety course on the ground that his 1983 training in California, along with the DMV's failure to transfer the California endorsement in 1992, entitles him to an Alaska endorsement without further proof of his competence. Several times over the past decade he has asked the governor's office to help him resolve the matter, though without success.

         On March 31, 2017, Anderson again renewed his driver's license and again asked the DMV to give him a motorcycle endorsement. This time he showed a photocopy of his decades-old, expired California driver's license, but the DMV again "failed to reinstate" his motorcycle endorsement.

         In May 2017, proceeding pro se, Anderson filed a complaint in which he "respectfully ask[ed] the court to mandate that [the DMV] restore [his] motorcycle endorsement... as it should have been done" in 1992 when he first surrendered his California license in exchange for an Alaska one. The DMV filed an answer and a few months later moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Alaska Civil Rule 12(c). The DMV argued that Anderson's claim accrued in 1992, when he transferred his license, and was now barred by a 10-year statute of limitations. The DMV also argued that "forc[ing it] to address an alleged error that occurred decades ago" would violate due process, because "[t]he records related to this transaction are long gone and it would likely be impossible to reconstruct what occurred through witness testimony." The DMV also relied on the doctrine of laches and Anderson's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Finally, the DMV relied on its regulations to contend that it lacked authority to transfer an endorsement from a license that had expired so long ago.[3]

         Anderson did not file an opposition to the motion, and the superior court granted it, relying "on the legal analysis in... the DMV's motion." The court awarded the DMV attorney's fees of $809.67 pursuant to the schedule of Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(2) for cases resolved short of trial and without a money judgment.

         Anderson now appeals.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "We review the grant of a motion for judgment on the pleadings de novo."[4]"The application of laches may raise three issues for review."[5] The first - whether the equitable defense of laches may be applied to the plaintiffs claim-presents a question of law we review de novo.[6] The second - "whether the facts demonstrate an unreasonable delay and a resulting prejudice" - presents questions of fact we review for clear error.[7] And the third issue-whether, based on the facts, it was appropriate to apply the laches doctrine - is a question reserved to the superior court's discretion, and we review it to determine whether that discretion has been abused.[8] "The trial court has broad discretion to sustain or deny a defense based on laches."[9]

         The interpretation of a regulation is a question we review de novo.[10] We review issues not properly raised in the trial court for plain error.[11] "A plain error involves an 'obvious mistake' that is 'obviously prejudicial' "[12]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. The Superior Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion By Applying The Laches Defense To Anderson's Claim For Injunctive Relief.

         The specific relief Anderson seeks by his complaint is a "mandate that the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles restore [his] motorcycle endorsement... as it should have been done at the time of [transference], at no cost to [him]." Traditionally, a suit asking the court to order a government official to act in a certain way is an action for mandamus.[13] The writ of mandamus was abolished in Alaska many decades ago by court rule, but the type of relief once provided by the writ may still be "obtained by appropriate action or by appropriate motion under the practice prescribed in" the Alaska Civil Rules.[14] One appropriate action in the nature of mandamus that is recognized by the Civil Rules is an action for a mandatory or reparative injunction.[15] Claims for injunctive relief are equitable in nature, [16] and the equitable doctrine of laches is therefore available as a defense to them.[17]

         The defense of laches requires that the defendant "show two 'independent' elements": "(1) that the plaintiff has unreasonably delayed in bringing the action, and (2) that this unreasonable delay has caused undue harm or prejudice to the defendant."[18]Both elements are plainly met in this case on the undisputed facts. The crux of Anderson's complaint is that the DMV acted unlawfully in 1992, when it failed to transfer the motorcycle endorsement from his California license to his replacement Alaska license. He claims he was surprised 15 years later when, in 2007, a friend informed him that his license lacked the proper endorsement. Even assuming it was reasonable for Anderson to be unaware of this himself for 15 years, [19] it was not reasonable for him to wait yet another ten years to file suit ...


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