Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court

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The Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) fired Captain Jonathan Sprague for persistently including religious comments in e-mails that he sent through the SVFD computer systems and items he posted on the SVFD electronic bulletin board. Sprague sued the Department for violating his First Amendment free speech rights. The trial court and Court of Appeals declined to address the merits of Sprague's claims, instead concluding that his earlier, unsuccessful appeal to the Spokane County Civil Service Commission (Commission) collaterally estopped his lawsuit. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, finding Sprague met his initial burden to show that SVFD's restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment. On remand, the burden will shift to SVFD to show by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same decision as to respondent's employment termination even in the absence of the protected conduct. View "Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Dep't" on Justia Law

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The Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) fired Captain Jonathan Sprague for persistently including religious comments in e-mails that he sent through the SVFD computer systems and items he posted on the SVFD electronic bulletin board. Sprague sued the Department for violating his First Amendment free speech rights. The trial court and Court of Appeals declined to address the merits of Sprague's claims, instead concluding that his earlier, unsuccessful appeal to the Spokane County Civil Service Commission (Commission) collaterally estopped his lawsuit. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, finding Sprague met his initial burden to show that SVFD's restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment. On remand, the burden will shift to SVFD to show by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same decision as to respondent's employment termination even in the absence of the protected conduct. View "Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Dep't" on Justia Law

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A question of Washington law was certified to the Washington Supreme Court on whether prospective employers are free to engage in retaliatory discrimination in the hiring process. Waterville School District No. 209 hired Jin Zhu as a math teacher in 2006. In 2010, Waterville issued a notice of probable cause for Zhu's discharge, which he appealed. The hearing officer determined that there was not probable cause for discharge and restored Zhu to his position. Zhu then sued Waterville in federal district court, alleging that Waterville had subjected him to racially motivated disparate treatment, a hostile work environment, and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. sections 1983, 2000e-2, and 2000e-3. His complaint alleged that he filed multiple grievances with Waterville regarding hostile and abusive actions by his students; instead of attempting to remedy the situation, Zhu alleged Waterville took retaliatory actions against him for filing the grievances, including attempting to discharge him without probable cause. After the district court denied Waterville's motion for summary judgment dismissal, the parties settled and Zhu resigned from Waterville in March 2012. Three months after resigning from Waterville, Zhu applied for a position as a "Math-Science Specialist" with ESD 171. Zhu was one of three candidates interviewed, but ESD 171 ultimately hired a different candidate, whom Zhu claims was far less qualified for the position. Zhu sued ESD 171 in federal district court, alleging that it refused to hire him in retaliation for his prior lawsuit against Waterville, thereby violating WLAD's antiretaliation statute, RCW 49.60.210(1), as well as other state and federal laws. The Washington Supreme Court held that in accordance with the plain language of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), chapter 49.60 RCW, retaliatory discrimination against job applicants by prospective employers was prohibited. Therefore, plaintiff Jin Zhu's claim that defendant North Central Educational Service District - ESD 171 (ESD 171) refused to hire him because of his opposition to his former employer's racial discrimination stated a valid cause of action. View "Zhu v. N. Cent. Educ. Serv. District" on Justia Law

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The Public Utility District No. 1 of Kittitas County (district) fired Kim Mikkelsen after 27 years of service. Mikkelsen sued the district, alleging that, among other things, her dismissal violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). Specifically, Mikkelsen claims that Charles Ward, the general manager, exhibited a bias against women and older employees and that gender and age discrimination were substantial factors in his decision to fire her. She also argued her dismissal violated the progressive correction action policy the district distributed to its employees. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment dismissal of Mikkelsen's age discrimination claim because Mikkelsen presented almost no evidence of age discrimination. But the Court reversed summary judgment dismissal of Mikkelsen's gender discrimination claim because the facts taken in the light most favorable to her create a material issue of fact about whether gender discrimination was a substantial factor in Ward's decision to fire her. The corrective action policy was ambiguous and could plausibly be read as establishing a for-cause standard for dismissal. View "Mikkelsen v. Pub. Util. Dist. No. 1 of Kittitas County" on Justia Law

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Former Seattle Public Schools (SPS) employees sought reversal of a Court of Appeals decision that affirmed summary judgment in favor of their bargaining representative, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609-A (IUOE). The appeal raised two issues: (1) whether petitioners' negligent and unauthorized practice of law and Consumer Protection Act claims against the union were subsumed within their claims that the IUOW breached its duty of fair representation; and (2) whether a six-month statute of limitations for unfair labor practices brought before the Public Employment Relations Commission applied to petitioners' claims they brought to the superior court. The Washington Supreme Court concluded the claims arising out of the union's representation were subsumed into a duty of fair representation claim, and that the six-month statute of limitations did not apply to unfair labor practices filed in superior court because the applicable statutes referred only to claims filed with the Public Employment Relations Commission. The Court held the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because petitioners' claims were timely. View "Killian v. Seattle Pub. Schs." on Justia Law

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Basilio Carrera lost his right hand in a workplace accident. The issue this accident presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review was whether the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) could pursue a third party claim for Carrera's injuries against Sunheaven Farms LLC, the contractor responsible for workplace safety at Carrera's job. The Washington Court affirmed the Court of Appeals' holding that L&I could pursue such a claim: statutes of limitations do not run against the sovereign when, as here, the State brought an action in the public interest. Benefit to a private party in addition to that state interest does not strip a state action of its sovereign character. Here, L&I's claim stands to benefit the State by reimbursing the medical aid fund (Fund) and furthering public policy goals; it is therefore exempt from the statute of limitations under RCW 4.16.160. The Court of Appeals also correctly interpreted chapter 51.24 RCW as authorizing L&I to recover damages beyond what it may retain. View "Carrera v. Olmstead" on Justia Law

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Weyerhaeuser Company challenged an award of industrial insurance benefits to its former employee, Roger Street, for his low back condition, a claimed occupational disease. Weyerhaeuser argued that a worker must present expert medical testimony that the disease "arises naturally" out of employment. The Court of Appeals rejected Weyerhaeuser's argument, holding that the controlling case law required Street to present expert medical testimony to show that his back condition "arose naturally" from employment. Because there was medical testimony supporting the "arises proximately" requirement and lay testimony supporting the "arises naturally" requirement, the appeals court held that Street proved his low back condition was an occupational disease and affirmed the jury award of benefits. Finding no reversible error in the Court of Appeals’ decision, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed. View "Street v. Weyerhaeuser Co." on Justia Law

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The federal district court has asked the Washington Supreme Court to answer two certified questions concerning how a Washington labor regulation addressing meal breaks should be applied. A wage dispute was pending at the federal court. Plaintiff Michael Brady filed an amended class action complaint seeking unpaid wages for meal breaks that defendant Autozone Inc. allegedly withheld from employees. Autozone removed the case to the federal district court. Brady later moved in that court to certify a class. After reviewing Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 296-126-092; Administrative Policy ES.C.6; and various decisions from Washington state courts, Western District of Washington, and California, the district court concluded that employers have met their obligation under the law if they ensure that employees have the opportunity for a meaningful meal break, free from coercion or any other impediment. The district court expressly rejected the notion that Washington has adopted a strict liability approach to the taking of meal breaks. In doing so, the district court found that class certification would be inappropriate considering the unique fact scenarios associated with each potential violation of the meal break statute. Accordingly, the district court denied Brady's motion for class certification. Brady sought review of this denial in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but that court would not permit Brady to appeal the decision. Brady then filed a motion in the district court, seeking to certify two questions to the Washington Supreme Court: (1) Is an employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092?; (2) If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092, does the employee carry the burden to prove that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC 296-126-092? The Washington Court answered the first certified question no: The employer is not automatically liable if a meal break is missed because the employee may waive the meal break. The Court answered the second certified question: an employee asserting a meal break violation under WAC 296-126-092 can establish his or her prima facie case by providing evidence that he or she did not receive a timely meal break. The burden then shifts to the employer to rebut this by showing that in fact no violation occurred or that a valid waiver exists. View "Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc." on Justia Law

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This case presented a question of whether the then-current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the State of Washington and Services Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW (SEIU) included a union security provision statutorily authorized under chapter 41.56 RCW. The trial court held that the CBA contained an authorized union security provision and dismissed the lawsuit. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Thorpe v. Inslee" on Justia Law

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Allan Tabingo was seriously injured while working aboard a fishing trawler owned and operated by American Seafoods Company LLC and American Triumph LLC (collectively American Seafoods). Tabingo alleged the lever used to operate a hatch on the trawler's deck broke when an operator tried to stop the hatch from closing. The hatch closed on Tabingo' s hand, leading to the amputation of two fingers. He brought numerous claims against American Seafoods, including a general maritime unseaworthiness claim for which he requested punitive damages. American Seafoods argued that as a matter of law, punitive damages were unavailable for unseaworthiness claims. The issue of whether punitive damages were available for a claim of unseaworthiness was a question of first impression for both the United States and Washington State Supreme Courts. The United States Supreme Court recently held that punitive damages were available for maintenance and cure, another general maritime claim. The Court held that because both the claim and the damages were historically available at common law and because Congress had shown no intent to limit recovery of punitive damages, those damages were available. Here, the Washington Court followed the United States Supreme Court's rationale and found that, like maintenance and cure, punitive damages were available for a general maritime unseaworthiness claim. The Washington Court reversed the trial court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Tabingo v. Am. Triumph LLC" on Justia Law