Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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In 2004, respondents Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed began a committed, romantic relationship. In 2012, the Washington legislature passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6239, which recognized equal civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. Respondents intended to marry in September 2013. By the time he and Freed became engaged, Ingersoll had been a customer at Arlene's Flowers for at least nine years, purchasing numerous floral arrangements from Stutzman and spending an estimated several thousand dollars at her shop. Baroronelle Stutzman owned and was the president of Arlene's Flowers. Stutzman knew that Ingersoll is gay and that he had been in a relationship with Freed for several years. The two men considered Arlene's Flowers to be "[their] florist." Stutzman’s sincerely held religious beliefs included a belief that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman. Ingersoll approached Arlene's Flowers about purchasing flowers for his upcoming wedding. Stutzman told Ingersoll that she would be unable to do the flowers for his wedding because of her religious beliefs. Ingersoll did not have a chance to specify what kind of flowers or floral arrangements he was seeking before Stutzman told him that she would not serve him. They also did not discuss whether Stutzman would be asked to bring the arrangements to the wedding location or whether the flowers would be picked up from her shop. Stutzman asserts that she gave Ingersoll the name of other florists who might be willing to serve him, and that the two hugged before Ingersoll left her store. Ingersoll maintains that he walked away from that conversation "feeling very hurt and upset emotionally." The State and the couple sued, each alleging violations of the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Stutzman defended on the grounds that the WLAD and CPA did not apply to her conduct and that, if they did, those statutes violated her state and federal constitutional rights to free speech, free exercise, and free association. The Superior Court granted summary judgment to the State and the couple, rejecting all of Stutzman's claims. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Benton County District Court ordered petitioner Briana Wakefield to pay $15 each month toward her outstanding legal financial obligations (LFOs). Wakefield was homeless, disabled, and indigent. Her only income was $710 in social security disability payments each month, and as a result, she struggled to meet her own basic needs. Wakefield and amici asked the Washington Supreme Court to reverse the district court's order and hold that the practice of strict LFO enforcement against homeless, disabled, and indigent people in Benton County violated state and federal statutes. Because the district court's order was contrary to both the law and the evidence in the record, the Supreme Court reversed: "Under state law, LFOs should be imposed only if an individual has a present or future ability to pay, and LFOs may be remitted when paying them would impose a manifest hardship on the person. . . . we order that her LFOs be remitted." View "City of Richland v. Wakefield" on Justia Law

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Nine employees of Western State Hospital (WSH) claimed that the hospital illegally took race into account when making staffing decisions in response to patients' race-based threats or demands. After a six-day bench trial, the trial court found that WSH managers issued a staffing directive that prevented African-American staff from working with a violent patient making threats over the course of one weekend in 2011. Despite this race-based staffing directive, the trial court entered a verdict for the State and dismissed Employees' employment discrimination claims. After review, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the State's racially discriminatory staffing directive violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). View "Blackburn v. Washington" on Justia Law

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At issue was whether RCW 4.24.550, a community notification statute relating to registered sex offenders, constituted an "other statute" under the Public Records Act (PRA), that would exempt the blanket release of level I sex offender registration information from a PRA request. Appellant Donna Zink made several public records requests with the Washington State Patrol (WSP) and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) for documents pertaining to level I registered sex offenders. Both the WSP and WASPC intended to grant her request, but the WASPC notified several of the John Does that their records had been requested. The John Does in turn filed suit to enjoin production of the records. The trial court granted the injunction. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court, holding that RCW 4.24.550, and specifically RCW 4.24.550(3)(a), was not an "other statute" exemption under RCW 42.56.070(1) of the PRA. View "John Doe A v. Wash. State Patrol" on Justia Law

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Brian Long sued his former employer, Bo Brusco and Brusco Tug & Barge Inc. (Brusco), alleging wrongful termination in retaliation for opposing Brusco's discriminatory conduct against another employee. The underlying facts were disputed, and centered on Brusco's response to Long's having hired as a deckhand Anthony Morgan, an individual who had a prosthetic leg. Long appealed the denial of his motion for a new trial based on a claim of juror misconduct. As the trial court explained in its order denying Long's motion for a new trial, "it was repeatedly conveyed to the jury that whether or not, in hindsight, Mr. Morgan was discriminated against was not their concern; rather, their focus should begin with the question of whether or not Mr. Long, at that time, had a reasonable belief that Mr. Morgan was being discriminated against." The question before the Washington Supreme Court was whether the juror declarations Long submitted in support of his motion describe actual misconduct by jurors or instead reveal matters that inhere in the verdict. The Court concluded the declarations expose the jury's deliberative process behind closed doors and cannot be considered to impeach the verdict. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court and the Court of Appeals' conclusion that Long was not entitled to a new trial. View "Long v. Brusco Tug & Barge, Inc." on Justia Law

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Petitioner David Brown appealed a Court of Appeals holding that venue for this sexual harassment suit was proper in Clark County. Respondents Robin Eubanks and Erin Gray alleged Brown engaged in sexual harassment against then from September 2007 to July 2010 while Brown was a deputy prosecuting attorney in the Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Eubanks mistakenly believed that RCW 36.01.050 allowed for venue in any neighboring county, rather than the two nearest judicial districts. Upon realizing it was only the two nearest judicial districts, Eubanks moved to transfer venue to an appropriate county, Clark County Superior Court. Brown responded, claiming that under RCW 4.12.020(2), only Klickitat County Superior Court was an appropriate venue for the claims. However, his response did not request a change of venue to Klickitat County Superior Court or ask the Benton County Superior Court to deny the transfer of venue to Clark County Superior Court. Benton County Superior Court granted the motion to transfer venue to Clark County Superior Court. After the change of venue to Clark County Superior Court, Brown moved for a dismissal or a change of venue to Klickitat County Superior Court based on RCW 4.12.025(1) and RCW 4.12.020(2). He argued that venue was proper in Klickitat County Superior Court because he resided there and, alternatively, because the alleged tortious acts occurred in virtue of his public office and took place there. Clark County Superior Court denied Brown's motion to dismiss or motion to change venue on both grounds. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Brown argued on appeal to the Supreme Court that RCW 4.12.020(2) required that suits against public officers for acts done "in virtue of his or her office" proceed in the county where the acts occurred. The Supreme Court affirmed venue was proper in Clark County because the Court held that the acts alleged in this complaint were not "in virtue of" Brown's public office under RCW 4.14.020(2). View "Eubanks v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Appellants James Kumar, Ranveer Singh, Asegedew Gefe, and Abbas Kosymov brought a class action lawsuit against their employer, Gate Gourmet Inc., alleging two common law torts and two violations of Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). The lawsuit stemmed from Gate Gourmet's employee meal policy, which barred employees from bringing in their own food for lunch (for security reasons), leaving only employer-provided food for the employees to eat. According to plaintiffs, the policy forced them to work without food or eat food that violated their religious beliefs. The meals ostensibly consist of one vegetarian and one meat-based main dish. The employees alleged that Gate Gourmet used animal by-products in the "vegetarian" option, and despite switching to turkey for a meat-based option, the company reverted to using a beef/pork mixture in violation of others' religious dietary restrictions. The complaint, therefore, alleged that Gate Gourmet deceived "putative class members [to] unknowingly eat[ing] food forbidden by their beliefs," and that class members "have faced the choice of eating food forbidden by their sincerely held beliefs or not eating. Those that did consume meals, they argued, suffered offensive touching due to their contact with food prohibited by their beliefs, and suffered distress as a result." The trial court granted in full Gate Gourmet's CR 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, finding that the WLAD contained no requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations for their employees' religious practices. The Washington Supreme Court granted direct review and reversed. The Court held that the WLAD created a cause of action for failure to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practices. With regard to plaintiffs' tort claims, the Court found the trial court dismissed them at the pleading stage, and the tort claims went without analysis. "In light of this fact and in light of Washington's relatively liberal standard for stating a cognizable claim," the Court remanded the case back to the superior court for further proceedings. View "Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc." on Justia Law

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The certified questions in this case centered on whether, the exemption of nonprofit religious organizations from the definition of "employer" under Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), violates article I, section 11 or article I, section 12 of the Washington Constitution. Larry Ockletree sued his former employer, Franciscan Health System (PHS), challenging the termination of his employment after he had a stroke. Ockletree, who is African-American, claimed that his termination was the result of illegal discrimination on the basis of race and disability. FHS removed the suit to federal court and moved to dismiss Ockletree's claims. FHS argued that it was exempt from WLAD as a nonprofit religious organization. Ockletree challenged the validity of the religious employer exemption under the state and federal constitutions. The district court certified questions to this court asking whether the religious employer exemption violated Washington's article I, section 11 establishment clause or its article I, section 12 privileges and immunities clause. The Washington Supreme Court answered both questions in the negative. View "Ockletree v. Franciscan Health Sys." on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case centered on whether Washington's constitutional separation of powers creates a qualified gubernatorial communications privilege that functions as an exemption to the Public Records Act (PRA). Freedom Foundation sued the governor to compel production of documents under the PRA after the governor asserted executive privilege and refused to release them. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled that separation of powers principles produced a qualified gubernatorial communications privilege. Because the Foundation made no attempt to overcome this qualified privilege, the trial court granted the governor summary judgment. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire" on Justia Law

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Respondent Robert Chaney was fired from his position and argued his termination violated the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). The employer, Providence Health Care d/b/a Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children's Hospital (Providence), claimed no violation of the FMLA occurred. The trial court denied motions for a directed verdict on the issue by both Chaney and Providence. Based upon undisputed facts, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in failing to grant Chaney's motion for a directed verdict that as a matter of law the hospital violated the FMLA. In 2005, his wife fell ill after giving birth, Chaney himself suffered a back injury, and he relied heavily on FMLA leave over the next two years. By June 2007, Chaney had used up most of his FMLA leave and had been donated leave from other employees. The record indicated that Providence administration and other staff were growing resentful that Chaney had taken so much time off. In 2007, an employee reported that Chaney appeared fatigued and incoherent. Although no claim was made that his work was compromised, Chaney was ordered to report for drug testing. The drug test was positive for methadone. Chaney had a prescription for methadone to treat back pain, but the doctor who gave the drug test noted that Chaney "[m]ay need fitness for duty evaluation or visit to his Dr. to fine tune his medication." A few months later, Chaney indicated he was prepared to return to work. The record reflected that Chaney was erroneously informed he needed Providence's permission to return to work. This violated the FMLA, under which Chaney could only be required to get authorization from his own health care provider. Chaney went to Providence's doctor, and administration told him the hospital would not allow him to return to work unless their doctor changed his recommended restriction. The hospital's doctor refused to change his recommendation. Subsequently, Chaney was fired. Providence claimed the termination was proper because Chaney failed to provide a valid fitness for work certification as required under the FMLA. View "Chaney v. Providence Health Care" on Justia Law