Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington certified two questions to the Washington Supreme Court in connection with the meaning of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), chapter 49.60 RCW. The federal trial court asked: (1) whether a school district was subject to strict liability for discrimination by its employees in violation of the WLAD; and (2) if yes, then did "discrimination," for the purposes of this cause of action, encompass intentional sexual misconduct, including physical abuse and assault? Gary Shafer was hired by the Olympia School District in 2005 as a school bus driver. It was undisputed that Shafer, during his employment, abused passengers on school buses, including P.H. and S.A., the minor plaintiffs in this case. Plaintiffs sued the school district in federal court, naming multiple defendants, and claiming both state and federal causes of action. Defendants moved for summary judgment, which was granted in part and denied in part. In response to the Washington Supreme Court's decision in Floeting v. Group Health Cooperative, 434 P.3d 39 (2019), plaintiffs successfully moved to amend their complaint to include a claim under the WLAD. The amended complaint alleges that the minor plaintiffs’ treatment constituted sex discrimination in a place of public accommodation. The Supreme Court answered "yes" to both certified questions: a school district may be subject to strict liability for discrimination in places of public accommodation by its employees in violation of the WLAD; and under the WLAD, discrimination can encompass intentional sexual misconduct, including physical abuse and assault. View "W.H. v. Olympia School Dist." on Justia Law

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Christopher Denney, a firefighter, sued the city of Richland, Washington in 2017. He argued the city violated the Public Records Act by withholding two investigative complaints Denney made about on-the-job harassment and discrimination. In 2019, both Denney and the city filed cross motions for summary judgment. After a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment for the city and denied Denney’s motion, finding the requested records were properly exempted from disclosure as attorney work product. The city promptly filed its notice of presentation three days after the February 12, 2019 judgment. On March 14, 2019, the final judgment was entered against Denny, awarding taxable costs to the city for a total judgment of $200. Because Denney filed his appeal more than 30 days after the summary judgment order was issued, the Court of Appeals sua sponte set the matter for dismissal as untimely. Denney argued the 30-day limitation ran from the March 14 judgment; alternatively, he asked for an extension of time based on the extraordinary circumstance that the February 12 order was misleading. The Court of Appeals commissioner disagreed, noting that under RAP 2.2(a)(1), “[t]he language Mr. Denney quotes from the [trial court’s] Order was not misleading because it clearly refers to entry of a judgment in favor of the City, as the ‘prevailing party.’ The requested judgment is for a judgment that awards specific amounts as costs to the City.” The commissioner dismissed Denney’s appeal, which Denney then moved to modify. The Chief Judge denied the motion in part, upholding the commissioner’s ruling dismissing Denney’s appeal of the February 12 order and granting the motion as to the appeal of the March 14 final judgment on the “limited scope of the [$200] cost award.” Denney moved for discretionary review with the Washington Supreme Court, which found that a summary judgment order disposing of all claims can constitute a final judgment, thereby starting the 30-day appeal deadline. An appeal of a trial court decision on the merits brings along a subsequent cost award, but a timely appeal of a cost judgment does not bring along review on the merits. Here, the Court found the summary judgment order wholly resolved Denney’s suit on the merits and reserved a cost award for later determination, triggering the deadline. Denny filed his appeal more than 30 days after the summary judgment and dismissal order issue. However, because Denney’s misinterpretation of the RAPs was an excusable error, the Supreme Court held Denney’s case warranted an extension of time to appeal. The Court therefore reversed and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. View "Denney v. City of Richland" on Justia Law

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In 2016, the Freedom Foundation sent Public Records Act (PRA) requests to several state agencies seeking disclosure of records for union-represented employees, including their full names, associated birth dates, and agency work email addresses. The agencies determined that all of the requested records were disclosable and, absent a court order, they intended to release the requested records. Several unions moved courts for preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent disclosure of the requested records. While a temporary injunction was granted as to most of the requested records, ultimately a permanent injunction was rejected. This case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review the issue of whether state employees had a protected privacy interest against disclosure of public records containing their birth dates associated with their names. The Supreme Court concluded the PRA did not exempt these records from disclosure, nor did the Washington Constitution, given that names and birth dates were widely available in the public domain. View "Wash. Pub. Emps. Ass'n v. Wash. State Ctr. for Childhood Deafness & Hearing Loss" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) generally prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee because the employee has a disability. The question posed centered on whether obesity qualified as an "impairment" under the WLAD. In 2007, Casey Taylor received a conditional offer of employment as an electronic technician for BNSF Railway Company, contingent on a physical exam and medical history questionnaire. The medical exam found Taylor met the minimum physical demands of the essential functions of his would-be job. Taylor self-reported his height and weight as 5'7" and 250 pounds, making his BMI 39.2. The medical exam revealed he was 5'6" and 256 pounds, with the resulting BMI of 41.3. BNSF treated a BMI over 40 as a "trigger" for further screening in its employment process. Because Taylor's BMI was over 40, the results were reviewed by BNSF's chief medical officer. Ultimately, BNSF told Taylor it was unable to determine whether he was medically qualified for the job "due to significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity, and uncertain status of knees and back." BNSF offered to reconsider Taylor's employment offer if he paid for additional medical testing, including a sleep study, blood work, and an exercise tolerance test. In short, BNSF told Taylor it was company policy not to hire anyone who had a BMI of over 35, and if he could not afford testing, his option was to lose 10 percent of his weight and keep it off for six months. Thereafter, Taylor sued. The Washington Supreme Court responded to the certified question that obesity "always qualifies as an impairment under the plain language of RCW 49.60.040(7)(c)(i) because it is recognized by the medical community as a 'physiological disorder, or condition' ... therefore, if an employer refuses to hire someone because the employer perceives the applicant to have obesity, and the applicant is able to properly perform the job in question, the employer violates this section of the WLAD." View "Taylor v. Burlington N. R.R. Holdings, Inc." on Justia Law

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Cesar Beltran-Serrano, mentally ill and homeless, was shot multiple times by a Tacoma, Washington Police Officer, Michel Volk. Beltran-Serrano survived the shooting, and through a guardian ad liter, filed suit for negligence and assault and battery against the City of Tacoma. The superior court dismissed the negligence claims on summary judgment, agreeing with the City that Beltran-Serrano’s legal redress would have been as an intentional tort claim for assault and battery. The Washington Supreme Court reversed: “the fact that Officer Volk’s conduct may constitute assault and battery does not preclude a negligence claim premised on her alleged failure to use ordinary care to avoid unreasonably escalating the encounter to the use of deadly force.” The Court concluded Beltran-Serrano presented evidence to allow a jury to find that the City failed to follow accepted practices in Officer Volk’s interactions with him leading up to the shooting, and that his negligence resulted in his injuries. View "Beltran-Serrano v. City of Tacoma" on Justia Law

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The federal Supreme Court remanded a case involving Washington law to the Washington Supreme Court. The underlying matter involved Washington’s anti-discrimination law, RCW 49.60.215(1), banning discrimination in “public accommodations” on the basis of sexual orientation. Barronelle Stutzman owned and operated Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., considered a place of public accommodation. Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts refused to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple. The federal Supreme Court remanded this case back to the State Court to determine whether the Washington law violated the federal Constitution’s guaranty of religious neutrality. After fully reviewing the record with this issue in mind, and substantial new briefing on the matter, the Washington Court held the answered the federal Supreme Court with a “no:” the adjudicators that considered this case did not act with religious animus when they ruled the florist and her corporation violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination. And, the Court determined, they did not act with religious animus when they ruled that such discrimination was not privileged or excused by the federal or state constitutions. View "Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, Inc." on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the Snohomish County, Washington sheriff was required to issue a concealed pistol license (CPL) to an individual whose juvenile record included adjudications for class A felonies. The Washington Supreme Court concluded: no, the sheriff was not required to issue a CPL to a person prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law. The Court of Appeals was reversed and Barr was denied a writ of mandamus to require the Sheriff issue him a CPL. View "Barr v. Snohomish County Sheriff" on Justia Law

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Christopher Floeting alleged a Group Health Cooperative employee repeatedly sexually harassed him while he was seeking medical treatment. He sued Group Health for the unwelcome and offensive sexual conduct under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which made it unlawful for any person or the person's agency or employee to commit an act of discrimination in any place of public accommodation. The trial court dismissed on summary judgment, pursuant to Group Health's argument the employment discrimination standard applied. The Court of Appeals reversed. Group Health argued the Washington Supreme Court should import workplace sexual harassment doctrines into the public accommodations context, thereby limiting its employer liability. Declining to do so, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court. View "Floeting v. Grp. Health Coop." 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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Rachelle and Charles Black were married for nearly 20 years and had three sons. They raised their children in a conservative Christian church and sent them to private, Christian schools. In 2011, Rachelle told Charles that she was lesbian, and the parties divorces shortly thereafter. In the order of dissolution, the trial court designated Charles as the primary residential parent. The final parenting plan also awarded Charles sole decision-making authority regarding the children's education and religious upbringing. The record showed that the trial court considered Rachelle's sexual orientation as a factor when it fashioned the final parenting plan. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found improper bias influenced the proceedings. “This bias casts doubt on the trial court's entire ruling, and we are not confident the trial court ensured a fair proceeding by maintaining a neutral attitude regarding Rachelle's sexual orientation. Accordingly, we reverse.” View "In re Marriage of Black" on Justia Law