Washington State Supreme Court Rules:
Public Accommodation Employers Are Strictly Liable When Employees Discriminate Against Non-Employees
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Paul R. Bedard, Esquire
Employers may be found liable for the actions of their employees due to numerous legal doctrines. In addition to federal and local legislation, various state laws impact the causes of action available. A state law prohibiting discrimination, the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), was enacted many years ago to combat discrimination in employment, places of public accommodation and other contexts. The Washington State Supreme Court broadly interpreted the WLAD when it recently ruled, "employers are directly liable for the sexual harassment of members of the public by their employees, just as they would be if their employees turned customers away because of their race, religion or sexual orientation," whether or not the employer is aware of their employees' behavior.
Washington Law Against Discrimination
Like restaurants, hotels, theaters, banks and other places generally open to the public, health clubs are classified as places of public accommodation. Although broader in its applicability, the WLAD provides people the right of "full enjoyment" of places of public accommodation while being free from discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability and more. Sexual harassment is viewed as a form of sex discrimination.
Washington State Supreme Court Ruling
The Washington State Supreme Court's ruling in Floeting v. Group Health Cooperative involves a case in which a patient of a medical clinic complained of repeated sexual harassment by an employee of the clinic. Floeting alleged that, beginning in July of 2012, he was repeatedly sexually harassed by a Group Health employee during his regularly scheduled medical appointments. Floeting filed a complaint with Group Health. Group Health promptly investigated, and two weeks later, terminated the offending employee's employment.
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