The Alaska Supreme Court last month affirmed a lower court’s ruling over attorney fees in a lawsuit between the owners of a condemned home and the Petersburg borough. It’s the latest decision in the legal battle that started in 2014 and is not over yet.
This case is one of two court actions sparked by the December 2013 borough assembly decision on the home at 1011 Wrangell Avenue. The foundation of that aging house failed in 2009. Home owners Fred Triem and Karen Ellingstad had the building taken down in 2014 after the borough assembly ruled that it had to be demolished or fixed up. However, the couple appealed the borough assembly decision, saying the assembly’s hearing on the building was not fair to them. Triem and Ellingstad lost that appeal in Superior Court in 2015 and tried to take that appeal to the state’s highest court.
In an opinion released May 31st, Alaska’s Supreme Court affirmed the 2015 decision by Superior Court judge Phillip Pallenberg awarding 1000 dollars in attorney’s fees to the Petersburg borough. The decision was only limited to the attorney’s fees in the case, not the actual appeal itself. That’s because the homeowners failed to file their appeal in time and the state’s highest court dismissed it. However, the court did agree to consider the issue of attorney’s fees. Triem and Ellingstad argued that the borough should not recover any court costs. The borough had sought to recover over 14,000 dollars. In his ruling, Superior Court judge Pallenberg noted irregularities in the hearing process and declined to give the borough more than the 1000 dollars. The Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion in the superior court ruling and upheld that award.
In an email to KFSK, borough manager Steve Giesbrecht wrote, “This is very nice to close this particular issue and recoup some of the tax payer money that was spent to help the residents of Wrangell Avenue clean up their neighborhood. It was always unfortunate that it took legal action at this level to convince the owners of the property in question to be better neighbors.” KFSK was not able to reach Triem for his comment Monday.
The cost of litigating a second case arising from the home demolition is also still up in the air. In May of this year another judge ruled in the borough’s favor in a lawsuit that challenged two administrative searches in January of 2013 at the Wrangell Avenue home. Superior Court Judge William Carey found that the borough did not violate the home owners’ rights in visiting the property in preparation for demolishing the structure. Carey dismissed the lawsuit and also denied a request for reconsideration.
The borough’s attorney in the case says his firm has billed the municipality for more than 114 hours totaling just under 23,000 dollars to defend that suit. The borough is seeking to recover 20 percent of that, a limit under Alaska court rules. That would amount to 4,580 dollars. In a court filing, Ellingstad said she brought the case to end the practice of administrative searches without a warrant or notice and is seeking no money award. The dollar amount in that case is still to be decided by judge Carey.