Washington Businesses Held Strictly Liable For Employee Discrimination Against Customers

Business Attorney Tacoma

Morton McGoldrick Employment lawyers monitor changes and issues in the area of employment law for its Tacoma and South Puget Sound businesses. If you are looking for a business attorney in Tacoma, we have the experience and expertise to work with business clients of all types. We believe that you should know about the following recent decision:

On January 31, 2018, the Washington Supreme Court decided a case Floeting v. Group Health Coop. in which it held that employers are strictly liable for their employees’ discriminatory conduct toward a customer in a place of public accommodation. The definition of a “public accommodation” may vary depending upon the law at issue (i.e. federal or state), and the type of discrimination involved (i.e. race, gender, religious or disability discrimination). Generally speaking, however, it may help to think of public accommodations as most (but not all) businesses or buildings that are open to (or offer services to) the general public. More specifically, the definition of a “public accommodation” can be broken down into two types of businesses/facilities: Government-owned/operated facilities, services, and buildings and privately-owned/operated businesses, services, and buildings.

Government-owned facilities include courthouses, jails, hospitals, parks, and other places owned and operated by federal, state and local government. Government-operated services, programs, or activities provided by federal, state, or local governments include transportation systems and government benefits programs (such as welfare assistance). Privately-owned/operated businesses and buildings that are considered places of public accommodation are businesses that offer certain goods or services to the public – including food, lodging, gasoline, and entertainment. That means restaurants, theatres, bowling alleys, donut shops, coffee houses, clothing stores, banks, credit unions, medical and law offices, accounting and tax service providers and more.

The court determined that employers will be strictly liable for discrimination by their employees regardless of whether they knew about the conduct and regardless of whether they took appropriate action to stop it once they did learn of it. The case in point involved a patient of Group Health Cooperative who complained that he was sexually harassed when he visited the clinic for his regularly scheduled medical appointments. When the patient complained, Group Health investigated the issue and fired the employee within 2 weeks. That, however, was not good enough. The Supreme Court has determined that employers will automatically be liable for any discriminatory conduct without regard to their knowledge or actions. Of course, a business can always defend a case by arguing that the discrimination did not take place or that whatever did happen did not constitute discrimination. Unfortunately, where an employee acts in violation of the law, the employer will be responsible, and it could be a very expensive matter because the laws against discrimination allow for a person who prevails on such a claim to recover their attorneys’ fees.

This case should serve as a reminder to all businesses that their obligation to ensure compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination laws extend beyond their obligation to employees in the workplace and includes the obligation to ensure that their customers are free from discrimination based upon the actions of their employees. This Washington Supreme Court decision means that employers will need to be very vigilant with training of all employees regarding discrimination and harassment of customers who are entitled to be protected against all such conduct in places of public accommodation. Failure to train and supervise closely could end up costing businesses whose employees are found to have violated the law.

If you are concerned about the issues involved in providing public accommodations free of discrimination, call the Tacoma Employment Attorneys at Morton McGoldrick for a consultation. If you believe that you have been discriminated against in a place of public accommodation call the Tacoma Employment Attorneys at Morton McGoldrick to discuss your potential claim.