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Floeting v. Grp. Health Coop.

Supreme Court of Washington

June 28, 2018, Argued; January 31, 2019, Filed

No. 95205-1

Opinion

 [*850]  [**40] En Banc

¶1 González, J. —] The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) makes it unlawful for “any person or [*851]  the person’s agent or employee to commit an act [of] discrimination … in any place of public … accommodation.” RCW 49.60.215. Christopher Floeting alleges that a Group Health Cooperative employee repeatedly sexually harassed him while he was seeking medical treatment. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. Group Health argues that we should import workplace sexual harassment doctrines into the public accommodations context, categorically limiting employer liability. We decline to do so and affirm.

Background

¶2 Floeting had been a member and patient of Group Health, a nonprofit health care system, for over 35 years. Group Health is a place of public accommodation. Floeting alleges that beginning in July 2012, he was repeatedly sexually harassed by a Group Health employee during his regularly scheduled medical appointments. He filed a complaint with Group Health, and Group Health investigated. Two weeks later, Group Health terminated the employee.

¶3 Floeting sued Group Health for the unwelcome and offensive sexual conduct he experienced. The [***4]  trial court dismissed his claim on summary judgment, presumably pursuant to Group Health’s argument that the employment discrimination standard applies.1 The Court of Appeals reversed. Floeting v. Grp. Health Coop., 200 Wn. App. 758, 403 P.3d 559 (2017). We granted review. Floeting v. Grp. Health Coop., 190 Wn.2d 1007 (2018).

Analysis

WA[1-9][1-9] ¶4 Group Health challenges employer liability for the discriminatory actions of its agents and employees and [*852]  challenges the legal test used by the Court of Appeals. We decline to import doctrines developed for the employment context into the public accommodations context. We hold that ] under the plain language of WLAD, employers are directly liable for the sexual harassment of members of the public by their employees,  [**41]  just as they would be if their employees turned customers away because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.

¶5 ] Since both of Group Health’s challenges present questions of law, our review is de novo. Fraternal Order of Eagles, Tenino Aerie No. 564 v. Grand Aerie of Fraternal Order of Eagles, 148 Wn.2d 224, 239, 59 P.3d 655 (2002) (citing State v. Keller, 143 Wn.2d 267, 276, 19 P.3d 1030 (2001)). ] When reviewing a statute, the court will give effect to the statute’s plain language. Dep’t of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). In determining if the statute is plain, we will consider the ordinary meaning of words, basic rules of grammar, and statutory context. Citizens All. for Prop. Rights Legal Fund v. San Juan County, 184 Wn.2d 428, 435, 359 P.3d 753 (2015).

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192 Wn.2d 848 *; 434 P.3d 39 **; 2019 Wash. LEXIS 68 ***; 103 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P46,217

Christopher H. Floeting, Respondent, v. Group Health Cooperative, Petitioner.

Prior History:  [***1] Appeal from King County Superior Court. 15-2-18015-1. Honorable Jeffrey M. Ramsdell.

Floeting v. Grp. Health Coop., 200 Wn. App. 758, 403 P.3d 559, 2017 Wash. App. LEXIS 2352 (Oct. 9, 2017)

CORE TERMS

place of public accommodation, public accommodation, employees, strict liability, sexual harassment, harassment, workplace, unfair practice, vicarious liability, discriminate, imputed, discriminatory conduct, protected class, discriminatory, eradicate, customer, argues, terms, employment discrimination, sex discrimination, plain language, commit an act, indirectly, proprietor, employment condition, workplace harassment, discriminatory act, vicariously liable, direct liability, nonsupervisory

Civil Rights Law, Protection of Rights, Public Facilities, Scope, Civil Procedure, Appeals, Standards of Review, De Novo Review, Standards of Review, Governments, Legislation, Interpretation, Labor & Employment Law, Sexual Harassment, Scope & Definitions, Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, Actionable Discrimination, State & Territorial Governments, Legislatures