Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Petitioner Freedom Foundation filed a public records request for documents relating to union organizing by several University of Washington (UW) faculty members. The UW asked one of the faculty to search his e-mail accounts for responsive records, and after reviewing those records, gave notice that it intended to release many of them in the absence of an injunction. Respondent Service Employees International Union 925 sued to enjoin release of any union-related records, arguing they were not "public records" under 42.56 RCW, the Washington Public Records Act. The trial court granted the injunction and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Foundation petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review, arguing that the "scope of employment test" employed by the trial court and affirmed on appeal, only applied to records stored on an employee's personal device, and should not have been extended to records on public agencies' e-mail servers. The Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded. View "Serv. Emps. Int'l Union Local 925 v. Univ. of Wash." on Justia Law

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The federal district court in Washington State certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. Plaintiffs Valerie Sampson and David Raymond (collectively, Sampson) were Washington residents who worked as commercial truck drivers for defendants Knight Transportation Inc., Knight Refrigerated, LLC, and Knight Port Services LLC (collectively, Knight). Plaintiffs brought this putative class action on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated for several alleged violations of Washington wage and hour laws. At issue here was Sampson's claim that piece-rate drivers must receive separate hourly compensation for all time spent "on-duty not- driving." The question the federal court posed to the Supreme Court was whether the Washington Minimum Wage Act required non-agricultural employers to pay their piece-rate employees per hour for time spent performing activities outside of piece-rate work. The Supreme Court responded: no. "All workers must be compensated for all hours worked in a work week in accordance with the Minimum Wage Act (MWA). For nonagricultural workers, WAC 296-126-021 validly allows employers to demonstrate compliance with the MWA's guaranty that Washington workers receive a minimum wage for each hour worked by ensuring that the total wages for the week do not fall below the statutory minimum wage for each hour worked. Accordingly, the plaintiffs in this case fail to demonstrate as a matter of law that they were uncompensated for time spent "loading and unloading, pre-trip inspections, fueling, detention at a shipper or consignee, washing trucks, and other similar activities." View "Sampson v. Knight Transp., Inc." on Justia Law

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Jared Karstetter worked for labor organizations representing King County, Washington corrections officers for over 20 years. In 1987, Karstetter began working directly for the King County Corrections Officers Guild (Guild). Throughout his employment with the Guild, Karstetter operated under successive 5-year contracts that provided for just cause termination. Eventually, Karstetter formed his own law firm and worked primarily for the Guild. He offered services to at least one other client. His employment contracts remained substantially the same. Karstetter's wife, Julie, also worked for the Guild as Karstetter's office assistant. In 2016, the King County ombudsman's office contacted Karstetter regarding a whistleblower complaint concerning parking reimbursements to Guild members. The Guild's vice-president directed Karstetter to cooperate with the investigation. The Guild sought advice from an outside law firm, which advised the Guild to immediately terminate Karstetter. In April 2016, the Guild took this advice and, without providing the remedial options listed in his contract, fired Karstetter. In response, Karstetter and his wife filed suit against the Guild, alleging, among other things, breach of contract and wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The Guild moved to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim. The trial court partially granted the motion but allowed Karstetter's claims for breach of contract and wrongful termination to proceed. On interlocutory review, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case, directing the trial court to dismiss Karstetter's remaining breach of contract and wrongful termination claims. The Washington Supreme Court found that “the evolution in legal practice has uniquely affected the in-house attorney employee and generated unique legal and ethical questions unlike anything contemplated by our Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs).” In this case, the Court found in-house employee attorneys should be treated differently from traditional private practice lawyers under the RPCs. “Solely in the narrow context of in-house employee attorneys, contract and wrongful discharge suits are available, provided these suits can be brought without violence to the integrity of the attorney-client relationship.”Karstetter alleged legally cognizable claims and pleaded sufficient facts to overcome a CR 12(b)(6) motion of dismissal. The Court of Appeals' ruling was reversed. View "Karstetter v. King County Corr. Guild" 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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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 trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Microsoft Corporation after Dawn Cornwell, a former employee, alleged the company retaliated against her. While working for Microsoft, Cornwell believed that her then-supervisor was discriminating against her on the basis of sex, engaging in romantic favoritism, and taking retaliatory action against her. She hired an attorney and settled the case with Microsoft.The settlement was confidential, and Cornwell was no longer required to work under her then-manager, Todd Parsons. Seven years later, Cornwell's new manager, Mary Anne Blake, asked Cornwell to mentor under another Microsoft employee. After learning that the employee reported to Parsons, Cornwell told Blake that she could not mentor under the employee. Blake asked Cornwell why, and Cornwell responded that it was because she had filed a "lawsuit" against Microsoft and could not report to Parsons. Cornwell also told Blake that the suit involved a review score issue and was confidential. Blake sought more information about the lawsuit from human resources and her direct supervisor, Nicole McKinley. Human resources did not have any information on file about the lawsuit and promised to follow up on the issue. Shortly after Cornwell told her about the suit, Blake conducted a mandatory performance review of Cornwell. Though Cornwell previously received high scores in her reviews, at this particular review, she received the lowest possible score. Human resources told Blake to not inform Cornwell of her review score "unless she asked about it." Cornwell would be laid off as part of a larger reduction in force. Cornwell did not learn about her low score until several years later when she was told that she could not be rehired at Microsoft because her final performance rating was so poor. Based on these events, Cornwell filed suit against Microsoft, alleging retaliation in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination. The Washington Supreme Court found Cornwell presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on the issues of knowledge and causation, reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Cornwell v. Microsoft Corp." on Justia Law

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Christopher Belling was forced to litigate to receive workers' compensation. The Employment Security Department sought to share in his award. Under some circumstances, when a person is forced to litigate to recover an award, others who seek to share in that award must also share in attorney fees. Under RCW 50.20.190, when a person receives both unemployment and workers' compensation benefits, the unemployment benefits must be repaid. The statute allows for situations when "equity and good conscience" makes repayment unfair under the circumstances. The Washington Supreme Court held in this case, the Department has to consider whether equity and good conscience required it to share in Belling's attorney fees as part of its large consideration of whether it would be fair to partially waive reimbursement of overpaid benefits under RCW 50.20.190(2). Given the case presented to the Department, the Supreme Court could not say the Department erred in declining to reduce reimbursement to account for Belling's attorney fees and costs. View "Belling v. Emp't Sec. Dep't" on Justia Law

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The dispute in this case concerned the correct characterization of Xerox's payment play under Washington law. Xerox had compensation formula fo call center employees based on "production minutes" - a unit of time during which an employee services incoming calls. If the production minute formed the basis for a bona fide piecework system, then one set of minimum wage rules and regulations applied. If the minute formed the basis for an hourly payment system, then a different set of hourly minimum wage protections applied. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question regarding Washington's labor law with respect to Xerox's compensation under "production minutes," and whether they qualified as piecework under the Washington Administrative Code. The Washington Supreme Court responded with a "no," "an employer's payment plan that includes as a metric an employee's 'production minutes' does not qualify as piecework under WAC 296-126-021. View "Hill v. Xerox Bus. Servs., LLC" on Justia Law

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David Martin's employment with Gonzaga University was terminated. He sued, alleging he was wrongfully discharged because of whistle-blowing, and asserted a private cause of action under RCW 49.12.250 for an alleged violation of the statute's requirement he be provided with his complete personnel file. Gonzaga successfully moved for summary judgment, dismissing the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the wrongful discharge, but remanded the personnel file claim for further findings of fact. The issue this appeal presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Court of Appeals applied the proper test to Martin's whistle-blower claim. The Supreme Court determined the appellate court applied the incorrect standard, and that the personnel file claim was not yet justiciable. So the Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of the whistle-blower claim, and reversed the personnel file claim, finding Gonzaga was entitled to summary judgment on both claims. View "Martin v. Gonzaga Univ." on Justia Law

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Constant vigilance is a job requirement for Garda CL Northwest, Inc., a company that operates armored transportation services. Garda requires those employees to maintain vigilance even when they take lunch breaks. The Court of Appeals ruled this constant vigilance policy deprived employees of a meaningful meal period, as guaranteed under WAC 296-126-092. The court also ruled the policy violated the Washington Minimum Wage Act. Violations of the MWA mandates employers double exemplary damages unless certain exceptions apply. At issue before the Washington Supreme Court was whether : (1) Garda carried its burden of showing a debatable dispute over whether the employees waived their state law right to meal periods in their collective bargaining agreements; and (2) plaintiffs could recover both prejudgment interest and double exemplary damages for the same wage violation. The Supreme Court determined Garda failed to prove a bona fide dispute based on waiver, and that aggrieved workers could recover both double exemplary damages and prejudgment interest for the same wage violation. The Court of Appeals was reversed for holding to the contrary, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Hill v. Garda CL Nw, Inc." on Justia Law