Federal courts occasionally get asked to decide novel questions of state law. They have two options when that occurs: (1) certify the question to the state’s highest court; or (2) predict how the state’s highest court would decide the question and apply that prediction as the rule of decision.
Judge Rice went the second route in an employment case last week. His ruling expands the scope of supervisor liability under Washington law.
Chris Blackman was the principal of Omak Middle School from April 2016 to November 2017. According to her complaint, Ms. Blackman was fired after she complained to her supervisor about illegal spending of school funds and suspected violations of Washington’s wage and hour laws.
Ms. Blackman sued her supervisor, Dr. Erik Swanson, for the common law tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Ms. Blackman asserted this claim on a whistle-blowing theory, alleging that Dr. Swanson retaliated against her for sounding the alarm about unlawful conduct.
Dr. Swanson challenged the claim in a 12(b)(6) motion, arguing that Washington law does not allow supervisors to be held individually liable for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
This was an issue of first impression. With no Washington precedent to apply, Judge Rice focused on how the Washington Supreme Court would decide the question. See Giles v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 494 F.3d 865, 872 (9th Cir. 2007) (“Where the state’s highest court has not decided an issue, the task of the federal courts is to predict how the state high court would resolve it.”). His conclusion: that supervisors can be individually liable for terminating an employee in a manner that contravenes public policy.
The Court concludes that the purpose of the wrongful discharge tort — namely, the deterrence of discharge in violation of public policy — is best served if individual employees, particularly those in a position of power, are held personally liable for conduct that violates public policy and effectuates another employee’s termination. In a wrongful discharge case, the tortious act is not the discharge itself; rather, the discharge becomes tortious by virtue of the wrongful reasons behind it. As such, where those tortious reasons arise from the unlawful actions of the individual effecting the discharge, he or she should share in liability.
So there you have it. Supervisors can be individually liable for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
The case is Chris Blackman v. Omak School District, et al., Case No. 18-CV-0338-TOR. Blackman is represented by Mike Love and Matthew Crotty. The defendants are represented by Jerry Moberg and James Baker.