Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, petitioner Robert Williams filed a personal restraint petition (PRP) arguing that the conditions of his confinement constituted cruel punishment in violation of the state and federal constitutions. While confined in Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities, Williams asked the Washington Supreme Court to order his sentence be served in home confinement at his sister’s home in Florida until COVID-19 no longer posed a threat to him. The Supreme Court issued an order recognizing that article I, section 14 of the Washington Constitution was more protective than the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding conditions of confinement and that Williams’s then current conditions of confinement were cruel under the state constitution: specifically, the lack of reasonable access to bathroom facilities and running water, as well as DOC’s failure to provide Williams with appropriate assistance in light of his physical disabilities. The Court granted Williams’s PRP and directed DOC to remedy those conditions or to release Williams. DOC later reported that it had complied with this court’s order and had placed Williams in a housing unit designed for assisted living care. Williams was relocated to a single cell with no roommates and a toilet and sink, and was given access to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant restrooms and a readily available medical staff, an assigned wheelchair pusher/therapy aide, and an emergency pendant allowing him to call for assistance. To this, the Supreme Court concluded these actions remedied the unconstitutional conditions and declined to order Williams’s release. By this opinion, the Supreme Court explained its reasoning underlying its grant of Williams' PRP. View "In re Pers. Restraint of Williams" on Justia Law

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The issue in this case was whether the Washington legislature extended a privilege or immunity to religious and other nonprofit, secular employers and whether, in providing the privilege or immunity, the legislature affected a fundamental right without a reasonable basis for doing so. Lawmakers enacted Washington’s Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) to protect citizens from discrimination in employment, and exempted religious nonprofits from the definition of “employer.” In enacting WLAD, the legislature created a statutory right for employees to be free from discrimination in the workplace while allowing employers to retain their constitutional right, as constrained by state and federal case law, to choose workers who reflect the employers’ beliefs when hiring ministers. Matthew Woods brought an employment discrimination action against Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (SUGM). At trial, SUGM successfully moved for summary judgment pursuant to RCW 49.60.040(11)’s religious employer exemption. Woods appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, contesting the constitutionality of the statute. SUGM argued RCW 49.60.040(11)’s exemption applied to its hiring decisions because its employees were expected to minister to their clients. Under Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020), plaintiff’s employment discrimination claim must yield in a few limited circumstances, including where the employee in question was a minister. Whether ministerial responsibilities and functions discussed in Our Lady of Guadalupe were present in Woods’ case was not decided below. The Supreme Court determined RCW 49.60.040(11) was constitutional but could be constitutionally invalid as applied to Woods. Accordingly, judgment was reversed and the case remanded to the trial court to determine whether SUGM met the ministerial exception. View "Woods v. Seattle's Union Gospel Mission" on Justia Law

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Executing a search warrant, in 2011, eight Tacoma police officers broke open an apartment door with a battering ram. They expected for find Matthew Longstrom, a drug dealer. Instead, they awakened Petitioner Kathleen Mancini, a nurse who had been sleeping after working the night shift. Police nevertheless handcuffed Mancini and took her, without shoes and wearing only a nightgown, outside while they searched. Mancini sued these police for negligence in the performance of their duties. A jury found the police breached a duty of reasonable care they owed to Mancini when executing the search warrant. The Washington Supreme Court found substantial evidence supported the jury’s verdict. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals that held to the contrary (granting the officers sovereign immunity) and reinstated the jury’s verdict. View "Mancini v. City Of Tacoma" on Justia Law

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This case involved cross appeals regarding a petition to recall Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan based on events that occurred at protests following the killing of George Floyd. The recall petition alleged Mayor Durkan failed to adequately control the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) response to the protests, allowing the police to use unnecessary force and causing significant harm to nonviolent protesters, local residents, media representatives, and medical aid workers. Of the seven recall charges, six were dismissed by the trial court and one was allowed to move forward. Mayor Durkan appealed the charge that was allowed to move forward, and the recall petitioners appealed the dismissal of two other charges. On October 8, 2020, the Washington Supreme Court issued an order affirming the trial court’s dismissal of two recall charges and reversing the finding that one charge was sufficient for recall. View "In re Recall of Durkan" on Justia Law

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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