No summary judgment for hotel in peeping tom case

You read that headline correctly. This case is about voyeurism. In a Spokane hotel.

Here are the facts, per Judge Mendoza’s order:

Plaintiff and one of her direct supervisors, Jason Pedigo, traveled to Spokane, Washington on a business trip in July 2016. They stayed at the Courtyard Spokane Downtown at the Convention Center. Pedigo successfully used a Ryobi scope to spy on Plaintiff by sticking it underneath a connector door between their rooms.

The plaintiff brought claims against her supervisor and the hotel. The supervisor wisely settled. The hotel did not.

The plaintiff’s claim against the hotel was for negligence. Her theory was that the hotel breached a duty to protect her from reasonably foreseeable peeping by the occupant of an adjoining room. The hotel moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe the plaintiff such a duty.

Judge Mendoza denied the motion and sent the case to trial. In his view, the duty question came down to whether the hotel should have foreseen that a guest might try to spy on a female occupant of an adjoining room. Here is what he had to say:

Defendants point to testimony of its employees indicating that they have never heard of a scope being placed underneath connecting doors and that there have not been any complaints of voyeurism, especially through a connecting door. But that takes too literal of a position on foreseeability, as foreseeability may be determined by extrinsic considerations.

Here, Plaintiff’s expert points to the case of Andrews v. West End Hotel Partners, LLC et al., involving a voyeurism incident where a guest was spied on through an altered peep hole. Plaintiff’s expert also opines that voyeurisms are well known and entirely foreseeable to hotel operators.

Plaintiff further points to the fact that the hotel had an informal policy of informing guests who will be placed in connecting rooms upon check-in, to allow either guest to opt out. . . .

Having reviewed the briefs and the record, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has raised a genuine dispute about the foreseeable range of danger.

Will the case settle before trial? It will be interesting to see. On one hand, the facts are pretty horrific. Every juror will rightly sympathize with the plaintiff. On the other hand, the hotel doesn’t seem particularly blameworthy. Perhaps it could have done more to anticipate this type of antisocial behavior by a guest. But did it have a legal duty to do so?

Tough call.

The case is Rechael Driver v. Courtyard Spokane Downtown at the Convention Center, et al., Case No. 17-CV-0303-SMJ. A copy of Judge Mendoza’s order denying the hotel’s motion for summary judgment can be found here.

Revelations of time card fraud doom plaintiff’s case against Grant County PUD

Wayne Black worked for the Grant County PUD for thirteen years. From 2005 to 2016, everything went smoothly. Black was recognized as a strong employee and was eventually promoted to a supervisor position.

In 2016, things took a turn. In July of that year, Black was reprimanded for an incident of insubordination. Shortly thereafter, he was stripped of his supervisor position for selling a tool belt that belonged to the PUD.

New supervisor positions came open in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2018. Black applied for both positions. Both were awarded to other people. Black subsequently sued the PUD, alleging that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his age and religious beliefs.

The case proceeded to discovery. During the course of conducting witness interviews, counsel for the PUD was told that Black had instructed several PUD employees to submit falsified time records during the time that Black was their supervisor. The PUD investigated the matter and determined that the reports were true. The PUD terminated Black for time card fraud, right in the middle of the case.

Black found himself in a classic “fight or flight” scenario. Without missing a beat, he amended his complaint to assert new claims for retaliation. His theory was that he was fired in retaliation for bringing the lawsuit, and that the PUD’s reliance on time card fraud as its justification was a mere pretext.

Judge Peterson did not buy the pretext argument. Applying the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework on summary judgment, she concluded that there was no “causal link” between Black’s filing of the lawsuit and his firing eight months later. Judge Peterson acknowledged that the temporal sequence of events could arguably give rise to an inference of retaliatory intent. Ultimately, though, she ruled that Black failed to make a sufficient showing that the PUD’s explanation was unworthy of belief.

Reading between the lines, the PUD’s evidence of time card fraud must have been pretty substantial. Had the evidence been thinner, Black’s retaliation claims would likely have been sent to a jury.

The case is Black v. Grant County Public Utility District, Case No. 17-CV-365-RMP. Judge Peterson’s summary judgment order is available here.

Court allows wrongful discharge claim against supervisor to proceed

Do federal courts ever get asked to decide novel questions of state law? You bet they do.

Judge Rice was presented with such a question last week in a wrongful termination case. His ruling expands the scope of a supervisor’s potential liability for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

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.

No irreparable harm means no injunction for Richland produce storage warehouse

It’s the commercial litigation version of “get off my lawn!” Intrigued? Read on.

Preferred Freezer Services operates a produce storage warehouse in Richland, Washington. Richland residents are well-acquainted with the facility; the building stands 120 feet tall and clocks in at 455,000 square feet. The local business journal says that the building — essentially a gargantuan freezer — “dominates the north Richland landscape.”

More than two billion pounds of produce pass through Preferred Freezer’s warehouse each year. That’s an enormous amount of produce. We’ll do some quick math to put that number in perspective. Two billion pounds per year equates to 5.4 million pounds per day. Our trusted friend Google informs us that a semi truck can haul about 50,000 lbs. of produce. So, picture 108 semis worth of fruits and veggies coming in and out of the warehouse each day. (5.4 million / 50,000 = 108 semis).

Does Preferred Freezer actually use semis to move all those fruits and veggies? No! That would be a nightmare. It uses rail cars instead.

The rail cars arrive on trains pulled by carriers like Union Pacific, and are then diverted onto a system of private tracks owned by Preferred Freezer. The company’s private tracks run right up to the warehouse, which makes loading and unloading the cars easy peasy.

But wait, you say. How do the rail cars get from the main track onto Preferred Freezer’s private tracks? Surely that’s a bit more complicated than you’re making it sound. Ok, fair question. It is rather complicated.

For purposes of this post, all you need to know is that Preferred Freezer contracts with a local railway operator, Tri-City Railroad Company (“TCRY”), to handle that task. TCRY shuttles the cars from the main track, onto Preferred Freezer’s private tracks to be loaded or unloaded, and then back onto the main track.

Preferred Freezer and TCRY had a falling out last year. The reasons aren’t especially important, so we won’t bore you with them. What is important is what happened as a result of the fallout. From what we can discern from the parties’ filings, the short story is that TCRY left several of its full-size locomotives just sitting on Preferred Freezer’s tracks. Preferred Freezer asked TCRY to move them, but TCRY refused.

Preferred Freezer moved for injunctive relief, asking Judge Bastian to order TCRY to move the locomotives. TCRY opposed the motion, arguing that it is entitled to “exclusive use” of the private tracks under the parties’ contract.

Judge Bastian denied the motion in a short, three-page order. Two factors were central to his decision. First, he ruled that Preferred Freezer failed to meet the heightened standard for so-called “mandatory injunctions” that alter the status quo by requiring a party to do something (as opposed to refraining from doing something). Second, Judge Bastian concluded that Preferred Freezer had not shown that it would be irreparably harmed. While not stated expressly, the order suggests that money damages would be an adequate remedy for Preferred Freezer if TCRY is proven to have wrongfully occupied the tracks with its locomotives.

This decision serves as a reminder that injunctive relief is reserved for truly extraordinary situations when no other remedy will do. Showing that you have a strong case is not enough. You have to go the extra mile and prove that money damages won’t be sufficient — especially if you are asking for an order that alters the status quo by requiring the other side to take action.

Preferred Freezer seems to have a pretty legitimate beef about TCRY using its tracks for an improper purpose. But its failed bid for injunctive relief was not a good way to start the case. We’ll continue to monitor the case and let you know what transpires.

The case is Tri-City Railroad Company, LLC v. Preferred Freezer Services of Richland, LLC, Case No. 19-CV-00045-SAB.