Washington Court of Appeals Holds Independent Contractors Are Protected from Retaliation by the Washington Law Against Discrimination

The Washington courts are strict in their interpretation of the classification of individuals as employees versus independent contractors, resulting in many an employer discovering that an “independent contractor” is instead an employee. But the Washington Court of Appeals’ recent ruling in Currier v. Northland Services, Inc., confirms that even those individuals who qualify as bona fide independent contractors will be deemed subject to the full protections of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”), including protection from retaliation. 

In Currier, the plaintiff, who worked as an independent contractor truck driver for NSI, overheard another independent contractor make a racist “joke” to a Latino driver. Currier reported the incident to NSI’s quality assurance manager, who informed the dispatchers of Currier’s complaint. Two days later, the dispatchers terminated Currier’s contract, citing “customer service issues” and informing Currier that they had spoken with the other truck drivers and “they had decided that the joke was funny.”

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Washington State Supreme Court's Decision on Religious Accommodation: What It Means for Employers

Employers in Washington should take note of last week’s decision from the Washington State Supreme Court holding that state law allows a claim for failure to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices. That result is hardly surprising, but how the Court reached that result, and its other conclusions along the way, will complicate how businesses in Washington operate. While the obligation to accommodate employees’ bona fide religious practice has existed under federal law since at least the early 1970s, smaller employers not subject to Title VII must now comply -- and all employers are now subject to suit for such claims in Washington state courts.

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Washington Supreme Court Holds That the WLAD Exemption for Non-Profit Religious Organizations is Unconstitutional as Applied to Certain Employees

The Washington Supreme Court has significantly limited non-profit religious organizations’ immunity from employment discrimination claims brought under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”), RCW 49.60. In Ockletree v. Franciscan Health System, the majority held that the exemption of non-profit religious organizations from the definition of “employer” in the WLAD is unconstitutional as applied in circumstances outside the scope of the organizations’ religious purposes.

Larry Ockletree worked as a security guard for a non-profit religious organization, FHS. Following the termination of his employment, Ockletree raised claims of race and disability discrimination against his former employer. FHS moved to dismiss Ockletree’s WLAD claims, arguing that it is exempt from the WLAD’s definition of an “employer,” which expressly excludes “any religious or sectarian organization not organized for private profit.” RCW 49.60.040(11).

The United States District Court certified two questions to the Washington Supreme Court: (1) whether the WLAD’s exemption for non-profit religious organizations violates the privileges and immunities clause or the establishment clause of the Washington Constitution; and (2) if not, whether the exemption is unconstitutional as applied to an employee claiming that the religious non-profit organization discriminated against him for reasons unrelated to a religious purpose, practice or activity.

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New Seattle Job Assistance Ordinance Limits Employers' Reliance on Criminal Records

Seattle employers are about to become much more restricted in their ability to inquire into or act upon the criminal records of applicants and employees. On November 1st, the Seattle Job Assistance Ordinance, SMC 14.17, takes effect and will apply to positions that are based in Seattle at least half of the time. The Ordinance does not apply to governmental employers (with the exception of the City of Seattle) or to positions involving law enforcement, crime prevention, security, criminal justice, private investigation, or unsupervised access to children under the age of sixteen or to vulnerable or developmentally disabled adults.

The Ordinance imposes the following new restrictions on the hiring process:

  • Advertisements for positions cannot state that applicants with criminal records will not be considered or otherwise categorically exclude such applicants;
  • The employer cannot implement any policy or practice that automatically excludes all applicants with criminal histories;
  • The employer must complete an initial screening process to weed out any unqualified candidates before the employer can question applicants about their criminal histories or run criminal background checks on applicants;
  • The employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant solely because he or she has an arrest record (as opposed to a conviction record); and
  • The employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant solely because of his or her conviction record, conduct underlying his or her arrest record, or pending criminal charges unless the employer has a legitimate business reason to do so.
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Washington Court Affirms That Anti-Retaliation Laws Protect HR Employees

The Washington Court of Appeals recently determined that state anti-discrimination laws prohibit retaliation against human resources and legal professionals who oppose discrimination as part of their normal job duties. The court also declined to extend the same actor inference, a defense against discrimination claims, to retaliation claims.

Lodis worked at Corbis Holdings as a vice president of human resources. As part of his normal job duties, he warned Corbis’s CEO, Shenk, that Shenk’s age-related comments could give rise to liability for age discrimination. Around the same time, Shenk promoted Lodis but almost immediately gave him a negative performance review, placed him on probation, and then ultimately fired him. 

Lodis sued under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), claiming that Corbis retaliated against him for opposing Shenk’s comments. The trial court concluded that Lodis was not engaged in protected activity “because he was simply performing his job duties by warning Shenk” about potential discrimination. The court of appeals disagreed.

Step Outside Rule

Corbis urged the court to adopt the “step outside” rule, which governs federal cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The rule requires an employee to step outside her normal job duties before receiving the FLSA’s protection against retaliation.  

The court declined to adopt the rule for two reasons. First, the court believed that the language of the WLAD could not support a step outside rule. Second, the court concluded that policy considerations favored rejecting the rule. “[A]dopting the step outside rule,” the court said, “would strip human resources, management, and legal employees of WLAD protection.” The court noted the importance of protecting these employees because they are often the most able to oppose workplace discrimination. 

Same Actor Inference

Corbis also argued that the court should apply the same actor inference to dismiss Lodis's retaliation claim.  The same actor inference arises when an employee is both hired and fired by the same decision-makers in a short period of time.  Courts may then infer that the employee was not fired for any attribute that the decision-makers were aware of when they hired her.  Corbis contended that Shenk promoting Lodis despite the warning about potential discrimination proved that he did not retaliate when he later fired Lodis.

The court, however, refused to extend the same actor inference to retaliation claims.  The court was concerned that extending the defense would allow employers to simply promote employees before terminating them to avoid valid retaliation claims.

Thus, Lodis v. Corbis Holdings, Inc. limits the same actor defense to traditional discrimination cases. And perhaps more importantly, the case reaffirms that the WLAD protects all employees from retaliation.

Countdown to Washington's New Hazardous Drugs Rule

In 2014, Washington health care employers will be required to comply with the Department of Labor and Industries’ (“L&I’s”) new Hazardous Drugs Rule.   While today that may seem like the distant future, savvy employers will take time in 2013 to implement measures in compliance with the new rule before the deadline to do so creeps up.

What is the Hazardous Drugs Rule?

The Hazardous Drugs Rule is designed to protect employees of health care facilities in Washington from occupational exposure to hazardous drugs. For purposes of the Rule, the term “health care facilities” includes not only hospitals and clinics, but also pharmacies, nursing homes, home health care agencies, veterinary practices, and some research laboratories. The Rule’s protections extend beyond medical providers, pharmacists, and the like to encompass all employees who may be exposed to hazardous drugs. For example, a janitorial employee’s duties may include disposal of discarded medications or similar exposure to hazardous drugs.

Hazardous drugs include any drug identified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety (“NIOSH”) in its list of antineoplastic and other hazardous drugs in health care settings, which can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2012-150/. In addition, hazardous drugs can include any other drug that can damage DNA or cause cancer, birth defects, fertility problems, or organ toxicity at low doses. Common examples of drugs considered to be hazardous under the Rule are chemotherapy drugs, birth control pills, and certain anti-depressants.

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Washington State Marijuana Legalization Law Need Not Affect Employer Drug Testing Policies

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including customer requirements, government contracting requirements (e.g.,the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. 

Some Washington state employers may be wondering whether any workplace implications have been created by the election day passage of voter Initiative 502, which made Washington the first state, with Colorado, to reject federal drug-control policy and legalize recreational marijuana use.  The simple answer is it does not change a Washington employer’s rights. 

We previously blogged a similar issue when discussing a 2011 Washington Supreme Court decision holding that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. Also previously covered in World of Employment, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law preempts Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana.

Similar concepts apply to the new Washington State marijuana legalization law.  Marijuana still remains illegal for all purposes under the federal Controlled Substances Act.  Employers simply do not have to condone illegal drug use, possession or influence at their workplace.

In light of state marijuana legalization efforts, to best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law is prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs as opposed to an “under the influence” standard. Employers should also ensure that all levels of their human resources personnel know how to handle medical marijuana issues as they arise.

This issue has been getting a lot of attention in the state and national media since the election.  For example, see this story in the Puget Sound Business Journal, and another article I wrote at the Law360 website (note that you need a subscription for Law 360).

Washington Law Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination Not Retroactive

On September 13, the Washington Supreme Court held that a 2006 amendment to the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, does not apply retroactively. But the Court also held that evidence of pre-amendment harassment is admissible to show why post-amendment conduct is discriminatory.

Loeffelholz, a lesbian, sued the University of Washington in 2009, alleging that Lukehart, her supervisor, harassed her from 2003 to 2006 because of her sexual orientation.  She claimed that Lukehart’s conduct had created a hostile work environment.  She alleged only one incident, however, that occurred after the effective date of the 2006 amendment, and that incident was not explicitly related to her sexual orientation.  The trial court dismissed her claim, stating that Lukehart’s post-amendment conduct was insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim.  The court of appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court affirmed in part.

The Supreme Court first determined that the 2006 amendment applies only prospectively.  Thus, Loeffelholz was not entitled to recover for Lukehart’s actions before the amendment’s effective date.  The Supreme Court held, however, that evidence of Lukehart’s pre-amendment conduct was admissible as context to prove that his post-amendment behavior was discriminatory.  The only explicit comments Lukehart made regarding Loeffelholz’s sexual orientation, asking if she was gay and telling her not to “flaunt it,” occurred when she started working in 2003.  The Court further held that if Loeffelholz prevailed in her post-amendment hostile work environment claim, she would be entitled to damages from the effective date of the amendment, not just from the date of Lukehart’s post-amendment conduct.

Thus, while Loeffelholz v. University of Washington precludes recovery for sexual orientation discrimination occurring before the amendment, it does allow employees to bolster sexual orientation discrimination claims with evidence of pre-amendment conduct.

City of Seattle's New Paid Sick and Safe Time Law To Take Effect in September 2012

 

As most Seattle employers know by now and as we blogged about earlier, beginning September 1, 2012, the City of Seattle will require that all but the smallest employers provide paid sick leave to their Seattle employees. Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Time (PSST) mandates that most employers provide paid leave, which increases depending on the size of a company’s workforce. Once employees have worked 180 days or more, they must be allowed to use PSST for their own or their family members’ illnesses, as well as for certain safety-related reasons.

We are getting many questions from employers about this new leave mandate. This update will provide answers to some common questions. 

Remember that you need to notify Seattle employees of their PSST rights by September 1.  We are here to assist you in administering this new leave.  Below are a few common questions that may come up.

Q:        What general notice do we have to provide our employees?

A:        Regularly Work in Seattle.  As of September 1, 2012 or soon thereafter, current Seattle employees (of employers of any size) should receive notice of their PSST rights, and new employees should receive such notice at the time of hire. This can be accomplished in several ways:

  1. A poster displayed conspicuously and accessibly in your usual posting place,
  2. A notice to employees provided in employee handbooks or similar employee guidance, and/or
  3.  A notice to employees handed out to each new employee upon hiring. 

The notice can be given either electronically or on paper. The City of Seattle’s model notice and poster (in a number of languages) are available online (scroll down to “Resources” box in right column). 

            Occasional Seattle Employees. If your only Seattle employees are those who work in Seattle occasionally and not on a regular schedule, you do not have to provide notice to all employees, provided that notice is given to occasional-basis employees reasonably in advance of their first period of work in Seattle.

Q:        What notice do we have to provide our employees regarding their PSST accruals?

A:        Each time wages are paid, employees who are accruing PSST (even those who have not worked 180 days yet) must be given information (either on paper or in electronic format) about the amount of PSST they have available. 

Q:       What categories of employees are covered by the law, and what leave must these employees be given? 

A:        Regularly Work in Seattle. These are employees (regular part-time or full-time, and temporary) who regularly work at least 240 hours per year in Seattle, either at your workplace, by teleworking from a Seattle location or by traveling from another location to regularly work in Seattle. These employees begin to accrue leave on September 1, 2012, and can take it as soon as they have worked 180 days or more (even if those 180 days occurred before September 1, 2012). Leave is only required to be provided during times the employee is working in Seattle.

            Occasionally Work in Seattle. These are employees (regular part-time or full-time, and temporary) who occasionally work in Seattle, not on a schedule. These employees begin to accrue leave for every hour they work in Seattle after the 240th hour in a calendar year, and can take leave on their 181st day of employment (even if some or all of those 180 days occurred before September 1, 2012). You can begin to count these employees’ Seattle hours as of September 1. You can delegate to employees the duty to track “Seattle hours” as long as you notify them of this and provide a reasonable way for them to track hours. Once an occasional employee is covered, he or she is covered for that calendar year and the following calendar year. Leave is only required to be provided during times the employee is working in Seattle.

            In order to determine accruals, you must determine your Tier Size. See our past post for further information on Tier Size and accrual amounts. 

Q:        How do we figure out what rate of pay employees earn during leave? 

A:        Generally.  Employees earn the rate of pay they would have earned during the time PSST is taken—but only for hours they were scheduled to work. Employees need not be paid for lost tips or commissions, but must receive at least Washington’s current minimum wage ($9.04 in 2012). 

Nonexempts. Employees who would have been paid overtime during their PSST hours need only be paid their regular hourly rate of pay. 

Exempts. Employees receive an hourly rate of pay by dividing the annual salary by the number of weeks worked per year, to get the weekly salary, and dividing the weekly salary by the number of hours of the employee’s normal work week.

Q:        How do we coordinate PSST with other leave, including paid leave such as Short-Term Disability and other Income Replacement Policies? 

A:        PSST may run concurrently with other leave (such as FMLA) where both apply, and can be provided as a part of paid leave policies (such as vacation, sick and PTO) if those policies meet the eligibility, use, accrual and carryover requirements of PSST. Determining how you will do this and how to amend your policies must be done on a case-by-case basis. The language of your short-term disability leave arrangement, whether provided via insurance, policy or a plan, also requires a case-by-case review. 

Please contact Keelin Curran or your Stoel Rives attorney with your questions regarding coordination of PSST with other leave benefits.

 

Washington Appeals Court Holds No Religious Accommodation Required Under WLAD

In Short v. Battle Ground School District, Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals held last week that Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, which makes it unlawful for employers to discharge employees because of creed, does not require employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.

Julie Short, a devout Christian, was employed as an assistant to the superintendent of the Battle Ground School District. Ms. Short alleged that the superintendent demanded that she to lie to a colleague about the existence of a meeting, even after she informed the superintendent that lying was contrary to her religious beliefs. After quitting her job, Ms. Short filed a lawsuit. One of the claims she brought was for failure to accommodate her religious beliefs. The trial court dismissed Ms. Short’s claim on summary judgment.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. It acknowledged that such a claim exists under federal law, as Title VII expressly imposes an affirmative duty on employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices. Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, however, pre-dates Title VII and does not contain similar language. The Court of Appeals declined to read a duty to accommodate religious beliefs into the statute without any indication from the legislature or the Washington Human Rights Commission that such a duty was intended.

While the Short case is a victory for employers, the question of whether Washington’s Law Against Discrimination requires employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs will not be resolved definitively unless and until the Washington Supreme Court takes up the issue. It declined to do so in Hiatt v. Walker Chevrolet Co., a case decided almost 20 years ago, and has not readdressed the issue since. In Hiatt, the Court recognized that Washington’s Law Against Discrimination did not expressly provide for a failure-to-accommodate claim but noted that it might implicitly require such accommodation. The Court declined to address the issue without more briefing, stating that it was an “important and complex question” that could have “constitutional implications.”

It is also well-settled that Title VII requires employers with 15 or more employees to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices, unless to do so would create an undue hardship upon the employer.

 

Mandatory Paid Sick Leave Law Passed in Seattle

Beginning September 1, 2012, the City of Seattle will require that all but the smallest employers provide paid sick leave to their Seattle employees. Sick leave mandates under the new law increase depending on the size of a company’s workforce, and employees must be allowed to use the leave for their own or their family members’ illnesses (“Paid Sick Leave”), as well as for certain safety-related reasons (“Paid Safe Leave”).

Seattle employers should use the coming months to plan how to best structure their paid leave programs to comply with the new law. The law has posting requirements and allows complaints to the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, including recovery of damages where violations are found (but not private lawsuits). Employers have an opportunity to provide comment to the City regarding the law before rules under the law are issued (see below).

Key aspects of the comprehensive new Paid Sick Leave and Paid Safe Leave ordinance include:

  • Coverage. Employers of five or more full-time equivalent (“FTE”) employees (employees working outside Seattle must be counted) are covered. Employees, including temporary and part-time employees, who work in Seattle at least 240 hours in a calendar year, must be allowed to accrue leave.
  • Waiting Period. Leave accrues from date of hire, but employees cannot begin to take leave until 180 calendar days after date of hire.
  • Mandated Leave and Minimum Caps. The amount of required leave increases with the number of FTE employees. Employers in the different tiers are required to allow their employees to accrue leave at the following minimum levels:
    • Tier One Employers of 5-49 FTE employees must provide at least one hour of accrued paid leave time for each 40 hours worked, up to a minimum ceiling of 40 hours per year.
    • Tier Two Employers of 50-249 FTE employees must provide at least one hour of accrued paid leave time for each 40 hours worked, up to a minimum ceiling of 56 hours per year.
    • Tier Three Employers of 250 or more employees must provide at least one hour of accrued paid leave time for each 30 hours worked, up to a minimum ceiling of 72 hours per year.
  • Basis of Accrual. Non-exempt employees accrue leave time based on hours actually worked. Exempt employees’ leave accrual is based on their regular weekly schedule, up to 40 hours maximum.
  • Carryover Required; No Payout on Termination. Mandated carryover is required for up to the same amount of leave time employers are required to allow an employee to accrue in any given year. (For instance, for employers of 49 or fewer, up to 40 hours may be carried over.) Payout on termination is not required.
  • Special PTO Requirement for Largest Employers. Tier Three Employers that use a “universal” paid leave program (usually referred to as “paid time off” or “PTO”), rather than dedicated sick leave, must provide more paid leave under the law than those employers with dedicated sick leave. Tier Three Employers must allow accrual of at least 108 hours of paid leave per year and allow carryover up to the same amount.
  • Leave Use. Leave can be used for the following purposes:
    • Sick Leave. Absence resulting from an employee’s or a qualifying family member’s illness or injury, including diagnosis, treatment and preventative care. (Qualifying family members are the same as under Washington’s Family Care Act: spouse, registered domestic partner, child, parent, parent-in-law or grandparent.)
    • Safe Leave. Absence (1) related to domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault of an employee or qualifying family member (amount of leave allowed and qualifying family members are the same as under Washington’s domestic violence leave law), or (2) due to a public health-related closure of the employee’s place of business or a child’s school.
  • Notice and Certification. An employee must provide at least 10 days’ notice of foreseeable leave, and must generally follow employer notice policies. Certification of leave use is limited to leaves of three or more days. Where the employer does not provide health insurance, the employer must pay at least half of medical costs associated with obtaining the certification.
  • Considerations and “To-Dos.”
    • Opportunity for Comment to the City. Employers have the opportunity to provide comments to and receive updates from the City of Seattle related to the implementation of the law. An FAQ is expected by the end of the year on their website, and draft rules in the spring of 2012. Write to Elliott Bronstein at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, at elliott.bronstein@seattle.gov, to be included in the notification list, and with any questions or comments you have about the law.
    • Collective Bargaining Agreements. The ordinance allows unions to expressly waive their members’ rights under the law. To avoid application of the law, employers should take steps to negotiate with their unions for a “clear and unambiguous” waiver and put it in writing.
    • Review Sick and Related Leave Policies, Including Short-Term Disability Policies. Employers must review policies and consider whether changes are needed to meet requirements under the new law.
    • Special PTO Requirements. Tier One and Tier Two Employers should make sure their PTO policies meet the requirements of the law to avoid having to provide additional paid sick and safe leave. Tier Three Employers that use a PTO program need to allow accrual and carryover of additional paid leave as described above.

Stoel Rives is here to help employers plan for the implementation of this law on September 1, 2012, and will be providing comments to the City about the law in the near future. Please contact us for assistance.
 

 

Victory For Employers in Washington Medical Marijuana Case

In a victory for employers, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act (“MUMA”) does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. Click here to download a copy of the decision in Roe v. Teletech Customer Care Management. The lawsuit and all appeals were handled for the employer by Stoel Rives attorneys Jim Shore and Molly Daily.

Jane Roe (who did not use her real name because medical marijuana use is illegal under federal law) sued Teletech for terminating her employment after she failed a drug test required by Teletech’s substance abuse policy. She alleged that she had been wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy and MUMA since her marijuana use was “protected” by MUMA. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Teletech, and Roe appealed. As discussed in a previous blog, the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Roe’s case. Roe then appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of in Teletech, holding that MUMA provides an affirmative defense to state criminal prosecutions of qualified medical marijuana users, but “does not provide a private cause of action for discharge of an employee who uses medical marijuana, either expressly or impliedly, nor does MUMA create a clear public policy that would support a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of such a policy.” The Court’s holding applies regardless of whether the employee’s marijuana use was while working or while off-site during non-work time. Adding to a significant victory for employers, the Court’s decision extends to the current version of MUMA as amended by the Legislature in 2007, and not just the original version passed by the voters in 1998 in effect when the facts of the case arose.

The plaintiff in the Teletech case did not raise a disability discrimination or reasonable accommodation claim under Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, and the Supreme Court therefore did not expressly reach that particular issue. But the Court did point out that marijuana remains illegal under federal law regardless of what the State of Washington does, and that it would be incongruous “to allow an employee to engage in illegal activity” in the process of finding a public policy exception to the at-will-employment doctrine. Moreover, the Court noted that the Washington State Human Rights Commission itself acknowledges that “it would not be a reasonable accommodation of a disability for an employer to violate federal law, or allow an employee to violate federal law, by employing a person who uses medical marijuana.”

The workplace implications of medical marijuana continue to be a developing area in many states. California’s Supreme Court has ruled in a manner consistent with Washington. Also previously covered in World of Employment, in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Industries, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law preempts Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana. But some states are more protective of an employee’s medical marijuana use. Given the continued efforts by marijuana advocates and civil rights groups to “push the envelope” of medical marijuana laws into the workplace, it is important for employers to continue to closely monitor legislative and legal developments. A recent effort to include workplace protections for medical marijuana users via amendments to Washington’s medical marijuana laws was defeated, but we anticipate similar efforts may be made in other states in the coming years.

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including customer requirements, government contracting requirements (e.g.,the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. To best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law is prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs as opposed to an “under the influence” standard. Employers should also ensure that all levels of their human resources personnel know how to handle medical marijuana issues as they arise.

WISHA Amendment Impacts Washington Employers' Obligations to Correct Serious Safety Violations During Appeals

Washington employers appealing citations for serious safety violations are about to face a new element to the appeal process.  An amendment to the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (“WISHA”), signed into law on April 15, 2011, will make it more difficult for employers to avoid immediate abatement of the underlying workplace hazard during the pendency of an appeal. 

Under the current version of the statute, the requirement to correct a safety violation is stayed when the employer files a notice of appeal of the citation with the Department of Labor and Industries (“L&I”).  Pursuant to the new amendment, an appeal of a citation involving a violation classified as “serious, willful, repeated serious violation, or failure to abate a serious violation” will no longer automatically stay the requirement to correct the underlying hazard.  Instead, an employer who desires a stay under such circumstances must file a specific request for a stay of abatement requirements in connection with its notice of appeal.

In cases where L&I issues a redetermination decision regarding the substance of the appeal, it will simultaneously issue a decision regarding any request for a stay.  L&I may grant the request unless it determines that the preliminary evidence shows a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers if a stay is permitted.

Denial by L&I of an employer’s request for a stay can be appealed to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (“BIIA”), which will employ an expedited review process regarding the request. Affected employees and their representatives will have the right to participate in that process.  As with L&I’s redetermination decision, the BIIA will be statutorily required to deny the request if the preliminary evidence shows that it is more likely than not that a stay would result in death or serious physical harm to employees. 

Employers appealing less serious safety citations will still be entitled to an automatic stay of abatement requirements during the appeal process, although many employers choose to voluntarily correct cited safety issues prior to resolution of an appeal.  The amendment is scheduled to go into effect 90 days after the close of the legislative session.

Medical Marijuana and Zero Tolerance Drug Testing Policies Remain An Issue For Employers

Employers and the courts continue to wrestle with issues involving “zero tolerance” drug testing policies and whether employers must accommodate medical marijuana use by their employees. Marijuana use is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and therefore does not need to be accommodated under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). However, 15 states currently have legalized some form or another of medical marijuana use: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington as well as the District of Columbia. The language of each state’s law can differ, and the courts therefore interpret these state law issues on a case-by-case basis.

 

Most recently, in Casias v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a Michigan federal district court ruled that an employee who was terminated by Wal-Mart after testing positive for validly obtained medical marijuana stated no legal claims for wrongful discharge. The court accepted Wal-Mart’s argument that Michigan’s medical marijuana law does not regulate private employment; rather, it merely provides a potential affirmative defense to criminal prosecution or other adverse action by the state. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the law created a new protected employee class, which “would mark a radical departure from the general rule of at-will employment in Michigan.” The Casias decision is currently being appealed.

A similar ruling is under review by the Washington State Supreme Court. I argued the case for the employer on January 18, 2011. As I previously blogged, the Washington Court of Appeals in Roe v. Teletech Customer Care Management affirmed a trial court’s ruling and held that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act (“MUMA”) does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. In so doing, the Court of Appeals stated, “MUMA neither grants employment rights for qualifying users nor creates civil remedies for alleged violations of the Act.” Rather, the Court held that MUMA merely protects qualified patients and their physicians from state criminal prosecution related to the authorized use of medical marijuana. The Court further held that when Washington’s voters passed MUMA through the initiative process, they did not intend to impose a duty on employers to accommodate employee use of medical marijuana. A decision from the Washington Supreme Court is anticipated later this year.

Three other state Supreme Courts have already issued rulings on workplace medical marijuana issues, and all have found in the employer’s favor. In Ross v. RagingWire, the California Supreme Court ruled that it is not discrimination to fire an employee for using medical marijuana. The court held that employers in California do not need to accommodate the use of medical marijuana, even when users only ingest or smoke marijuana away from the workplace.

In Johnson v. Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, the Montana Supreme Court ruled, in an unpublished decision, that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee's use of medical marijuana under the federal ADA or the Montana Human Rights Act.

Also previously covered on World of Employment, in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Industries, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law takes precedence over Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana. Stoel Rives filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the employer in that case.

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including, without limitation, customer requirements, government contracting requirements (including the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. To best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law are prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs in an applicant’s or employee’s system as opposed to using an “under the influence” standard. Employers should also ensure that all levels of their human resources personnel know how to handle medical marijuana issues as they arise. Finally, given the continued efforts by marijuana advocates and civil rights groups to “push the envelope” of medical marijuana laws into the workplace, it is important for employers to continue to closely monitor legislative and legal developments. A recent effort to include workplace protections for medical marijuana users via amendments to Washington’s medical marijuana laws was defeated, but we anticipate similar efforts will be made in Washington and other states in the coming years.

More Employers Resorting to No-Nicotine Hiring Policies

Check out this Washington Healthcare News article authored by Stoel Rives Labor and Employment attorneys Keelin Curran and Karin Jones, in which they discuss the developing trend of strict no-smoking policies in the workplace, including no-nicotine hiring practices. Research indicates that smokers impose significant additional health and disability costs on employers, and experience twice as many illness-related absences from work.

In the article, they note that many states have enacted legislation specifically prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of lawful off-duty activities such as tobacco use. However, for those states without such protections, employers have thus far successfully defended their right to exclude tobacco users from their hiring pools.

Read Curran's and Jones' analysis of the issue, including court cases and the potential pitfalls under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) when such policies are applied to current employees.

"Snuffing Out Employee Tobacco Use: The Trend Towards No-Nicotine Hiring Policies" was published by Washington Healthcare News, February 2011.

Oregon Supreme Court: Employers Are Not Required to Accommodate Medical Marijuana

Yesterday the Oregon Supreme Court conclusively ruled that employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, ending years of doubt and confusion on this critical issue. Click here to read the Court’s opinion in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor and Industries.

In Emerald Steel, a drill press operator was terminated after his employer learned he was using medical marijuana to treat a medical condition that qualified as a disability under Oregon law. The employee filed a claim with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging that the employer’s refusal to accommodate his use of medical marijuana violated Oregon law requiring employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability. A judge ruled that the employer did not properly engage in the interactive process to determine whether other reasonable accommodations were possible.

The employer appealed that decision, arguing that neither federal nor state disability law requires employers to engage in the interactive process with users of medical marijuana, given that their use of marijuana is prohibited by federal law. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employee on the basis that the employer failed to preserve that argument in the case below. Further, a prior Oregon Court of Appeals case—Washburn v. Columbia Forest Products—had held that employers do have a duty to accommodate the use of medical marijuana by a disabled employee.

On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the trial judge and the Court of Appeals, and reversed the Oregon Court of Appeals’ decision in Washburn. The Supreme Court held that employers do not have to accommodate employees’ use of illegal drugs. Because marijuana—medical or otherwise—is illegal under federal law, employers are not required to accommodate its use under any circumstance.

Since the original Washburn decision, many Oregon employers have assumed they were obligated to accommodate the use of medical marijuana by disabled employees. The Emerald Steel decision should give all Oregon employers comfort in knowing that, until or unless federal law changes, they are definitely not required to accommodate medical marijuana use. A similar ruling from the Washington Court of Appeals is being reviewed by that state’s supreme court.  Stoel Rives represents the employer in that case. Click here to read the World of Employment's coverage of that case.

Washington Domestic Partnership Law Impacts Employee Benefits and Family Leave

Washington voters recently approved Referendum 71, giving registered domestic partners all of the rights and responsibilities of married couples under Washington state law.   Prior domestic partnership laws gave registered domestic partners limited rights and responsibilities such as hospital visitation, health care decision making, inheritance and community property rights.  The new law includes all of the rights and responsibilities granted to married couples under state law. 

Notably, the Washington State Insurance Commissioner has given notice that all insurance policies that include spouses will also be required to cover registered domestic partners.  Washington employers and insurance providers should review the new law and existing policies and procedures to ensure compliance when the law takes effect on December 3, 2009.  More information, including verification of registered domestic partnerships, is available at the Secretary of State’s website.  Additional information on how R 71 may affect employee benefits and family leave laws is available as part of a recent Stoel Rives LLP Client Alert.

Washington Court of Appeals Upholds Termination Where Medical Marijuana Use Caused Drug Test Failure

Note:  On April 1, 2010, the Washington Supreme Court granted review of the Court of Appeals decision discussed in this entry.  A final ruling on the case will be issued by the Washington Supreme Court at a later date.

 

A Washington Court of Appeals has ruled that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act (“MUMA”) does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. Click here to download a copy of the Court of Appeals Decision in Roe v. Teletech Customer Care Management

 

Jane Roe (who did not use her real name because medical marijuana use remains illegal under federal law) sued Teletech for rescinding its employment offer after she failed a drug test required by Teletech’s substance abuse policy. She sought reinstatement and damages, alleging that she had been wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy since her marijuana use was legal under MUMA. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Teletech, and Roe appealed.

 

The Washington Court of Appeals, Division II affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Roe’s case, stating, “MUMA neither grants employment rights for qualifying users nor creates civil remedies for alleged violations of the Act."  Rather, the Court held that MUMA merely protects qualified patients and their physicians from state (not federal) criminal prosecution related to the prescribed use of medical marijuana.  The Court further held that when Washington’s voters passed MUMA through the initiative process, they did not intend to impose a duty on employers to accommodate employee use of medical marijuana. The lawsuit and appeal, handled for the employer by Stoel Rives attorneys Jim Shore and Molly Daily, is likely to be further appealed by Roe to the Washington Supreme Court. 

 

The workplace implications of medical marijuana continues to be a developing area. If your company has employees in any state allowing the use of medical marijuana under certain circumstances (including Washington, Oregon and California), you should review your substance abuse policies and make certain that all local human resources personnel and drug test administrators know whether the company will consider an exception for medical marijuana usage. Currently, Washington employers do not need to accommodate medical marijuana usage by making an exception to an otherwise valid substance abuse policy. However, because of court rulings in other states interpreting their states’ disability laws and advocacy groups’ continued attempts to expand medical marijuana rights, employers should continue to exercise caution when dealing with requests for disability accommodation involving medical marijuana. If such an issue arises, consider consulting with legal counsel.

President Obama Orders Federal Employees Not to Text While Driving

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting all federal employees from text messaging while driving on official business or while using government equipment.  Click here to read President Obama's executive order on texting while driving.  While President Obama's order does not effect private employers, it does directs federal agencies to encourage contractors and their employees to also to ban texting while driving on government business. 

Private employers may also want to consider adopting policies prohibiting employees from texting or using cell phones while driving.  Several studies, including this one from Car and Driver Magazine, show that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.  There have been numerous cases in recent years where employers have been sued by the victims of accidents alleged to have been caused while the employees were texting or using cell phones and driving. 

Several states have banned cell phone use while driving (including Washington and, effective Jan. 1, 2010, Oregon) and several more are banning texting while driving.  Need to know the law in your state?  Check out this great overview of cell phone/texting while driving laws by state from the Governors' Highway Safety Association

Washington Minimum Wage to Remain $8.55/Hour in 2010

Washington's minimum wage will remain $8.55 per hour in 2010, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) announced this week.  Click here to view L&I's press release on the 2010 Washington minimum wage.    

L&I recalculates the state’s minimum wage each year as required by Initiative 688, which requires that the minimum wage be increased for inflation annually according to any increases in the federal Consumer Price Index.  This year, the CPI actually decreased by 1.9 percent.  However, Initiative 688 does not allow L&I to decrease the minimum wage, so it will remain the same in 2010.  Washington employers can continue to use the current minimum wage poster for at least one more year.  Click here for more information on Washington's minimum wage from L&I. 

As we reported last week, Oregon's minimum wage will also remain unchanged in 2010, at the rate of $8.40 per hour.  A total of ten states have minimum wage rates tied to various cost of living measures:  Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Ohio, Nevada, Montana, Missouri, Florida, Colorado, and Arizona. 

Washington Supreme Court Upholds Employer's Right to Fire Workers who Protest Bad Boss

Sometimes the Washington Supreme Court pleasantly surprises employers. Today is one of those days. The Court issued its decision today in Briggs v. Nova Services. The plaintiffs in this case were eight employees of Nova Services, a non-profit social services organization in Washington. The employees apparently had major problems with the executive director who was appointed by the board, Linda Brennan. They sent a letter to the board expressing their disapproval with Ms. Brennan’s job performance. They explained that she “left managers to do work in isolation, failed to delegate authority well, did not hire needed staff, failed to foster open communication, and was poor at managing finances.”  The board hired a lawyer who confirmed that regardless of whether Ms. Brennan was a decent manager, she had done nothing illegal. He suggested that the board either fire Ms. Brennan or the two employees who were the ringleaders of the disgruntled group, Ken Briggs and Judy Robertson, because their animosity clearly ran too deep to foster a positive working environment. The board decided to let Ms. Brennan stay.   After an unsuccessful attempt to mediate their dispute, Ms. Brennan ultimately fired Briggs and Robertson. The other six employees responded by writing another letter to the board protesting the firing of Briggs and Robertson and threatening, in essence, unless Brennan is fired and Briggs and Robertson are reinstated, we quit.  The employees gave the board one day to respond and stated that the deal was “non-negotiable.” The board did not respond and the employees did not report to work.

 

The at-will employees sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. This cause of action is a narrow exception to the at-will employment doctrine. It only applies where an employee is fired for something like refusing to engage in an illegal act, performing a public obligation like jury duty, exercising a legal right like voting, or in retaliation for reporting employer misconduct (whistle blowing). Relying on RCW 49.32.020, the employees argued that Washington law, like the federal labor laws, protects employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities. In essence, this law protects non-union employees who work together to complain/negotiate/bargain with their employers over terms and conditions of employment. The Court determined that RCW 49.32.020 was not meant to apply to this context of a protest walk out over the firing of two employees and the retention of a disliked boss. The Court focused on the idea that “working conditions includes things like better wages, improved medical coverage, better treatment from supervisors, lunch and rest breaks, layoffs and recalls, production quotas, work rules, on the job harassment, and even food prices at in-plant dining rooms.” The Court determined that management decisions which “lie at the heart of entrepreneurial control” are not terms and conditions of employment. Thus Nova’s decision to replace the employees who walked out in protest was not a wrongful termination in violation of public policy. There was a dissent which focused more on federal labor laws as persuasive. Under federal law, this case might have come out differently. There were also two concurring opinions. Justice Madsen’s opinion focused on the fact that the plaintiffs never raised the RCW 49.32.020 issue until the appeal, which is arguably way too late to bring it up. Justice Johnson’s opinion was a bit more complicated but essentially argued that the Court mixed up two completely separate issues, the wrongful discharge tort and the protected concerted activity statute. He agreed that complaining about a bad boss is not protected.

 

The bottom line for employers is that in Washington, it is not necessarily “protected concerted activity” (and that is a legal term of art to be discussed with your labor lawyer when necessary) for employees to protest everything in the workplace. There are still going to be some workplace issues that are clearly terms and conditions of employment.   Employees can band together to complain about these issues.  Other workplace concerns may not be safe for at-will employees to protest. One such concern is clearly who’s the boss. With support from today’s decision, there will be others. Before taking any action in response to employees who act collectively, however, it would be very prudent to consult an experienced labor lawyer.      

Washington Wal-Mart Workers Get Their Wish - $35 Million

The Washington state class action by Wal-Mart employees for missed meal and rest breaks and for being forced to work off the clock finally ended this week with a payment to the workers of $35,000,000 and $10,000,000 to their attorneys.  Wal-Mart (are you surprised?) denies any wrongdoing.  For more on the lawsuit and subsequent settlement, click to read the Huffington Post's analysis or this coverage by Forbes. The settlement, which is just one of many for Wal-Mart, is another important reminder that liability for wage and hour violations can really add up.  And it adds up really fast when the class size is over 80,000 workers.

Washington employers should check with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for information on meal and rest break rules

Now, Washington Wal-Mart workers, go spend those "stimulus" dollars!  You have until August 19 to fill out your claim form.

Use Workshare Program to Cut Costs and Keep Workers

Are you looking for ways to hang on to staff, yet reduce costs?  Those goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive if you choose to participate in your state's workshare program.  A workshare program allows your employees to collect some unemployment benefits but continue working part time.  Here's an article from the Center for Law and Social Policy that gives additional detail.

Seventeen states have such programs:  Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington.  For a sample of a workshare law, see Section 1279.5 of California's unemployment insurance code.

Each state’s program is a little different, but they have common attributes.  We’ll use Oregon’s program as an example. 

Continue Reading...

Washington Supreme Court Decides Morgan v. Kingen - Bankruptcy is No Defense

The Washington Supreme Court issued a decision today in Morgan v. Kingen, holding that bankruptcy is not a valid defense to a willful withholding of wages under RCW 49.52.070.  The plaintiffs in this case worked at Funsters Grand Casino in SeaTac, Washington.  The casino was not a success and the owners voluntarily filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after only one year in business.  After it became clear that the owners were not going to inject badly needed capital, the bankruptcy court converted the proceedings to a complete liquidation under Chapter 7.  After the conversion, the owners couldn't have paid their employees even if they had wanted to (at least from the seized Funster assets).

The plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of over 180 employees to recover unpaid wages.  The owners of the bankrupt casino argued that while the wages were admittedly owed, the withholding was not willful because the assets were seized in bankruptcy.  This distinction is crucially important because willful withholding of wages allows a plaintiff to recover double damages, attorneys' fees and exposes the withholder to personal liability.  The owners of the bankrupt casino were thus personally liable for twice the amount of all the unpaid wages plus attorneys' fees unless they could assert a bankruptcy defense.  They tried.  They failed at the trial level, the appellate level, and as of today, at the Washington Supreme Court as well.  Justice Sanders dissented, noting that the owners could not have paid as their assets were seized and unavailable.  He was joined by Justice Johnson and Justice Sweeney, pro tem.

The bottom line for businesses in Washington remains unchanged by this decision.  A financial inability to pay wages does not constitute a defense to a willful withholding of wages.  Today's decision establishes that even a complete liquidation in bankruptcy is no defense.  The lesson?  If your business is failing and it looks like there may not be enough assets to satisfy all the looming creditors, you might want to seriously consider paying wages before anything else.      

Extension of Federal Benefits to Same-Sex Partners Falls Short of Goals

The memorandum issued by President Obama yesterday extends some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, including access to a government insurance program that pays for long-term conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, and to sick leave to care for a sick same-sex partner or a non-biological child.  However, the extension did not provide eligibility for health care to same-sex partners, drawing protest from gay activists

Why did President Obama stop short?  The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 federal law that, among other things, defines marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman.  According to President Obama's press statement, the White House determined that DOMA prevented an extension of all benefits to same-sex partners, including health care.  In the statement, President Obama called on Congress to repeal DOMA and signaled an intend to extend all benefits to same-sex partners if and when that happens. 

President Obama's actions will clearly impact Federal agencies and their employees, but what effect does it have on private employers?  For now, none  - the memorandum only applies to the federal government.  However, it does signal a growing trend in mandating the extension of employee benefits to same-sex partners. States that recognize same-sex marriage generally require private employers to extend benefits to same-sex spouses; other states that do not recognize same-sex marriages but do recognize same-sex partnerships (such as Oregon, Washington and California) may require private employers to extend benefits to same-sex partners under certain circumstances.  Private employers should consult legal counsel about their possible obligation to provide such benefits. 

Washington's Minimum Wage To Rise to $8.55 January 1, 2009

Washington employers get ready to give your minimum-wage employees a raise:  effective January 1, 2009, Washington's minimum wage will increase to $8.55 per hour, allowing Washington to maintain the highest minimum wage in the country.  For more information, click here to read the Department of Labor and Industries' Press Release.  Washington's current minimum wage is $8.07 per hour.

As previously reported in the Stoel Rives World of Employment, Oregon's minimum wage will increase to $8.40 also effective January 1, 2009.  Following voter initiatives, both Oregon and Washington now tie their minimum wages increases to the Consumer Price Index

The federal minimum wage is now $6.55 per hour, but will go up to $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.  For information on minimum wages in other states, check out this interactive map of the United States showing minimum wage rates, available from the U.S. Department of Labor

"Blonde Jokes" Support Workplace Emotional Distress Claim

Usually when I get an employment lawsuit alleging "negligent infliction of emotional distress," I chuckle to myself and immediately begin drafting a motion to dismiss.  However, a recent case out of the Washington Court of Appeals may indicate that NIED claims are not totally frivolous!

In Strong v. Wright, the plaintiff sued her former supervisor because he told "blonde jokes" (apparently plaintiff was blonde), made fun of her house, ridiculed her husband's job, and referred to her as a "bum mother" because she put her son in therapy.  The plaintiff alleged that this treatment "caused her to vomit and to have anxiety attacks, depression, and heart palpitations."  Really.  Blonde jokes=heart palpitations.

The trial court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the claims were nothing more than a run-of-the-mill workplace dispute.  The Washington Court of Appeals  reversed, holding that  the events went beyond a mere workplace dispute.  One of the facts that helped the court reach this decision:  the defendant stood so close to plaintiff while telling the blonde jokes that his spit would fly and hit her face, constituting an "assault" under Washington law. 

What's the lesson here for employers?  Even though none of the supervisor's conduct violated federal or Washington discrimination or harassment law (although the blonde jokes could be construed as race or national origin discrimination under Title VII), employers still need to watch out for boorish and demeaning workplace behavior.  Courts appear willing to find a way--or even create a way--to continue policing the workforce.  Lastly, whatever you do, DO NOT let your employees visit this website full of blonde jokes

Washington: Public Policy Against Domestic Violence Supports Claim of Wrongful Discharge

Is a Washington employer prohibited from terminating an at-will employee because she took leave from work to protect herself from domestic violence?  Yes, according to last week's opinion from the Washington Supreme Court in Danny v. Laidlaw Services

In Danny, the plaintiff sued her former employer in federal court, alleging she was terminated for taking leave from work in order to respond to domestic violence.  The federal court certified to the Supreme Court the question of whether Washington has a clear public policy that would support Danny's claim of wrongful discharge.  The Washington Supreme Court responded in the affirmative, stating that Washington "has...established a clear mandate of public policy of protecting domestic violence survivors and their families and holding their abusers accountable." 

Washington employers take note:  if you have an employee who is taking time off from work - perhaps in violation of your attendance policy - to respond to an incident of domestic violence or to testify against an abuser, terminating that employee will be extraordinarily risky.  A safer course may be to work with that employee to find a way to allow her or him to get the time off that she or he needs, and then return to work.  Need more help on how to work with an employee who is dealing with domestic violence?  Check out these resources from the Family Violence Prevention Fund

Ninth Circuit Asks Washington Supreme Court to Define "Disability" under WLAD

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week certified a question to the Washington Supreme Court, seeking that court's help in defining "disability" under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). 

Two years ago, in McClarty v. Totem Electric, 137 P.3d 844 (2006), the Washington Supreme Court significantly narrowed the definition of "disability" under the WLAD.  In 2007, the Washington Legislature passed a law codifying the broader, pre-McClarty definition of disability, and explicitly stated that definition would apply retroactively.   

This week, in Moore v. King County, the Ninth Circuit certified to the Washington Supreme Court the question of whether the retroactive application of the 2007 law is lawful under the separation of powers doctrine in the Washington Constitution, where the cause of action arose prior to the McClarty decision. 

This case is of interest to Washington employers with pending disability claims under the WLAD.  It will be a significant win for Washington employers if the Washington Supreme Court answers that the retroactive application is unlawful, as any WLAD disability cases arising before July 6, 2007 (the effective date of the new definition of "disability"), will be decided under the narrower McClarty definition of disability. 

City of Vancouver Settles Race Discrimination Suit for 1.65 Million

The City of Vancouver, Washington announced yesterday that it will pay a former police officer $1.65 million to settle a federal retaliation and racial discrimination lawsuit he filed two years ago over his termination.  To read the Oregonian's coverage on the case, click here

This isn't plaintiff Navin Sharma's first settlement with the city:  he settled another race discrimination claim against the city in 2001 for $287,000.  In the most recent lawsuit, Sharma claimed that his 2006 firing was in retaliation for his 2001 settlement.  Vancouver admits no wrongdoing, but claims that the cost of a trial and keeping police officers in the courtroom for two or three weeks instead of performing their regular police duties promted the settlement decision. 

 Sharma's attorneys are calling the settlement the Northwest's largest-ever individual settlement for employment discrimination.  We'll never know for sure:  most discrimination cases are settled privately and the terms are confidential.  This settlement is public only because the 'Couve is a public entity.  In any event, it appears that the bar has been raised. 

Jail Time For Washington Employer

As part of a plea agreement reached earlier this month, Jerry and James Schram, co-owners of a Vancouver, Washington construction company, will serve 30 days of jail time and perform community service.  Their crime?  Hiding information in an attempt to reduce their workers' compensation premiums. In addition, the Schrams also pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for the unpaid wages and will pay 13 employees their back overtime, totaling over $350,000. 

The plea agreement was announced by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, which brought the claims. 

Hang Up and Drive! Washington and California Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving

Last night I was riding home and was almost run off the street by a woman reading a novel while driving, when I remembered:  Effective July 1, 2008, new laws in California and Washington prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.  Drivers may, however, use a cell phone if the communication is made using hands-free device such as a bluetooth headset or wired headset.  Earlier this year, another Washington law went into effect banning text messaging while driving. 


In Washington, both the cell phone and the text messaging laws are "secondary enforcement " laws, meaning that offenders will only receive a ticket if pulled over for another traffic violation such as speeding or running a stop sign.  California law enforcement, however, is authorized to ticket drivers only for cell phone use.  As far as I know, Oregon does not yet prohibit reading while driving (but it should!)


Want more information?  The California DMV has a great Q&A site on its new law.  Don't live in Washington or California but want to know what the law is in your state?  Check out this handy chart of state cell phone laws from the Governor's Highway Safety Association. 


Employers should alert their employees who may drive in California or Washington as part of their job duties.  And employers in all states might consider implementing a cell phone policy that restricts the use of cell phones while driving.  Recent years have seen a large upswing in lawsuits against employers who supply their employees with cell phones, if the employee is then in an accident while using the phone. 

Washington Passes New Domestic Violence and Military Family Leave Laws

On April 1, 2008, Governor Christine Gregoire signed new laws requiring Washington employers of any size to provide two kinds of leave to Washington employees: domestic violence leave for victims and family members, and military family leave. To learn more, check out Stoel Rives’ update