Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
by
The federal district court for the Western District of Washington certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. The federal court asked the Supreme Court to clarify the standards for equitable tolling in civil cases under Washington law. The underlying federal case involved a long-running dispute between a certified class of more than 25,000 Washington teachers (Teachers) and the Department of Retirement Systems (DRS). The federal district court determined that while the Teachers established a Fifth Amendment takings claim, the applicable statute of limitations on that claim lapsed several years before the Teachers filed this suit. The Teachers asked the federal district court to apply the doctrine of equitable tolling to allow the suit to proceed despite the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court answered the certified question by reiterating the four conditions it previously identified as necessary to justify equitable tolling of a statute of limitations in the civil context. Washington law allows equitable tolling of a statute of limitations in a civil suit when: (1) the plaintiff has exercised diligence; (2) the defendant’s bad faith, false assurances, or deception has interfered with the plaintiff’s diligent efforts; (3) tolling is consistent with (a) the purpose of the underlying statute and (b) the purpose of the statute of limitations; and (4) justice requires tolling the statute of limitations. View "Fowler v. Guerin" on Justia Law

by
Glacier Northwest Inc. claimed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174 (Local 174) was liable for concrete product loss during a strike and for an alleged misrepresentation by a union representative that Glacier claims interfered with its ability to service a concrete mat pour. The trial court ruled the strike-related claims were preempted by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and granted summary judgment for Local 174 on the misrepresentation claims. Glacier appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed on the preemption issue but affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the misrepresentation claims. The Washington Supreme Court granted review and accepted amicus curiae briefing from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, to address whether an employer’s state tort claims against its truck drivers’ union were preempted by the NLRA, and whether any claims that were not preempted were properly dismissed by the trial court. The Supreme Court concluded the NLRA preempted Glacier’s tort claims related to the loss of its concrete product because that loss was incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law. The Court also affirmed the dismissal of Glacier’s misrepresentation claims because the union representative’s promise of future action was not a statement of existing fact on which those claims could be properly based, and because the statement was not a proximate cause of Glacier’s losses. View "Glacier Nw., Inc. v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters Local Union No. 174" on Justia Law

by
Tradesmen International and Laborworks Industrial Staffing Specialists were staffing agencies that placed temporary workers with host employers. Tradesmen staffed a worker at a Dochnahl Construction site. Laborworks staffed workers at a Strategic Materials recycling facility. The Department of Labor and Industries (Department) cited the staffing agencies for Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA) violations arising from the staffing operations. In both cases, the citations were vacated by the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (Board), finding that the staffing agencies were not liable employers under WISHA. The Department appealed the decisions to the superior court. As to Laborworks, the superior court reinstated the citations, and as to Tradesmen, the superior court affirmed the Board and vacated the citations. In both cases, the Court of Appeals determined that the staffing agencies were not liable employers under WISHA and vacated the citations. After its review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals as to Tradesmen and reversed as to Laborworks. View "Dep't of Labor & Indus. v. Tradesmen Int'l, LLC" on Justia Law

by
This case involved a challenge to former RCW 43.43.120(23)(a) (2001), which excluded certain overtime from the calculation of the monthly pension benefit granted under the Washington State Patrol Retirement System (WSPRS). Four Washington State troopers (Troopers) hired before the statute became effective claimed this exclusion of voluntary overtime from the calculation of their monthly pensions was an unconstitutional impairment of their contract with the State in violation of article I, section 10 of the United States Constitution and article I, section 23 of the Washington State Constitution. On cross motions for summary judgment, the trial court ruled: (1) the statute of limitations was three years and accrued at retirement; (2) there remained issues of material fact regarding whether the change was offset by comparable benefits; and (3) the change was reasonable and necessary to serve a legitimate public purpose. After review of that ruling, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s rulings on the statute of limitations and on comparable benefits. However, the Court vacated its legitimate public purpose ruling as premature given that the issue of comparable benefits remained for trial. The matter was remanded for additional proceedings. View "Hester v. Washington" on Justia Law

by
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

by
At issue in this case was whether the general-specific rule applied to a second degree manslaughter charge stemming from a workplace death. The State initially charged Phillip Numrich under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act of 1973 (WISHA), RCW 49.17.190(3), the specific statute that punished employer conduct resulting in employee death. The State also charged the employer with second degree manslaughter. The trial court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the manslaughter charge based on the general-specific rule, and the employer sought and was granted direct review. Specifically, the issue before the Washington Supreme Court was whether the trial court properly denied Numrich’s motion to dismiss a second degree manslaughter charge when one of his employees was killed at the construction site. While consideration of the employer’s motion for direct discretionary review was pending, the State moved to amend the information to add an alternative charge of first degree manslaughter. The trial court granted the motion to amend but sua sponte imposed sanctions against the State based on the timing of the amendment. The employer sought review of the order granting the amendment and the State sought review of the order imposing sanctions. The Washington Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not err in denying the employer’s motion to dismiss the manslaughter charge under the general–specific rule. Furthermore, the Court held the trial court did not err in granting the State’s motion to amend the information to add an alternative first degree manslaughter charge. Finally, the Court held the trial court did not err in imposing sanctions on the State under the circumstances of this case. View "Washington v. Numrich" on Justia Law

by
Roger Leishman, an openly gay man, began employment with the Washington Attorney General’s office (AGO) as chief legal advisor to Western Washington University in 2015. Shortly after starting work, Leishman began exhibiting serious trichotillomania, anxiety, and other symptoms he disclosed to his employer. He would later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which was also disclosed to his employer. In January 2016, Leishman learned he did not receive a raise given to other assistant attorney generals, due to complaints his supervisor made about his conduct at work. Leishman contended his supervisor’s complaints were based on homophobic beliefs. Leishman made a formal request for reasonable accommodation of his disability, which the AGO denied. Leishman drafted a discrimination complaint. In response, the supervisor denied making the comments, accused Leishman of faking his disability, and refused to support his then-pending accommodation request. The AGO retained Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC (OMW) to conduct an independent investigation into Leishman’s discrimination complaint and his supervisor’s allegations. The OMW report concluded Leishman did not establish discrimination against him based on sexual orientation, and his conduct during a meeting with his supervisor violated expected standards of conduct for his position. The AGO thereafter terminated Leishman’s employment effective June, 2016. Leishman filed suit against the AGO. The parties reached a settlement agreement in which Leishman agreed to release his claims against the State and its officers. However, he also sued OMW, alleging the firm was not acting as the AGO’s agent, and his claims against the OMW were not barred by the settlement. The trial court granted OMW’s motion for judgment on the pleadings; the Court of Appeal reversed. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment. View "Leishman v. Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC" on Justia Law

by
This case concerned the constitutionality of RCW 49.46.130(2)(g), the provision exempting agricultural workers from the overtime pay requirement set out in the Washington Minimum Wage Act, ch. 49.46 RCW. Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar worked for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy as milkers. DeRuyter milkers used mechanized equipment to milk close to 3,000 cows per shift, 24 hours a day, three shifts a day, 7 days a week. In 2016, Martinez-Cuevas and Aguilar filed the present class action suit along with about 300 fellow DeRuyter dairy workers, claiming that DeRuyter failed to pay minimum wage to dairy workers, did not provide adequate rest and meal breaks, failed to compensate pre- and post-shift duties, and failed to pay overtime. The complaint also sought a judgment declaring RCW 49.46.130(2)(g) unconstitutional. The trial court granted partial summary judgment to the class, finding the exemption violated article I, section 12 of the Washington Constitution and the equal protection clause. After review, the Washington Supreme Court concurred with the trial court and affirmed that judgment. View "Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Bros. Dairy, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Evette Burgess and Lithia Motors, Inc. entered into arbitration to resolve an employment dispute. During arbitration proceedings, Burgess filed a motion with the court to terminate arbitration, alleging that Lithia and the arbitrator breached the arbitration agreement. The superior court denied Burgess’s motion, citing a lack of jurisdiction, and certified the matter for direct review, which the Washington Supreme Court granted. Under the FAA, the Supreme Court determined judicial review was limited to deciding gateway disputes, which concern enforceability of the arbitration clause, and addressing the award after arbitration. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court. View "Burgess v. Lithia Motors, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Pagliacci Pizza hired Steven Burnett as a delivery driver. Steven Burnett attended a mandatory new employee orientation at a local Pagliacci Pizza. During the orientation, Pagliacci gave Burnett multiple forms and told him to sign them so that he could start working. One of the forms that Burnett signed was a one-page “Employee Relationship Agreement” (ERA). The ERA mentioned nothing about arbitration of disputes. Pagliacci’s “Mandatory Arbitration Policy” (MAP) was printed in Pagliacci’s employee handbook, “Little Book of Answers,” a 23-page booklet in which Pagliacci’s MAP appeared on page 18. The MAP was not listed in the handbook’s table of contents, and page 18 fell within the “Mutual Fairness Benefits” section. Burnett was given a copy of Little Book of Answers during his orientation and told to read it at home. Consistent with that instruction, the ERA contained a section entitled “Rules and Policies.” Delivery drivers like Burnett filed a class action alleging wage and hour claims against Pagliacci Pizza. At issue on interlocutory review was whether the trial court sustainably denied the employer’s motion to compel arbitration. The Court of Appeals affirmed, determining that the mandatory arbitration policy contained in the employee handbook, which was provided to the named plaintiff after he signed the employment relationship agreement, was procedurally and substantively unconscionable and, thus, unenforceable. The Washington Supreme Court held that the MAP at issue in this case was indeed unenforceable because no arbitration agreement was formed when the employee signed the employment agreement when he had no notice of the arbitration provision contained in the employee handbook. The Court also held that in light of the noted circumstances, even if an arbitration contract existed, it was procedurally unconscionable and unenforceable. Furthermore, the Court held the same arbitration provision was substantively unconscionable because its one-sided terms and limitation provisions would bar any claim by the terminated employee here, an overly harsh result. Accordingly, the trial court’s order denying the employer’s motion to compel arbitration was affirmed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Burnett v. Pagliacci Pizza, Inc." on Justia Law