The Washington State Supreme Court held today that a sexual orientation discrimination amendment adopted in 2006 is not retroactive.
The court also concluded that conduct that took place prior to the amendment is admissible background evidence to prove the discriminatory nature of certain conduct occurring after the amendment.
Loeffelholz v. Univ of Washington (Washington 09/13/2012)
Loeffelholz sued under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) claiming discrimination based on sexual orientation. WLAD was amended in 2006 to include sexual orientation as a protected class, and Loeffelholz alleged several pre-amendment acts and one post-amendment act.
The Washington Supreme Court held that (1) the WLAD amendment is not retroactive and the pre-amendment conduct is not actionable as it was not unlawful when it occurred, and (2) the post-amendment allegedly discriminatory comment is arguably similar enough to the pre-amendment conduct to survive summary judgment.
Loeffelholz alleged that her supervisor between 2003 and June 2006 maintained a hostile work environment based on sexual orientation. This was prior to the WLAD amendment. Loeffelholz also alleged a single act of discrimination by this supervisor after the WLAD amendment.
The court’s findings:
(1) Pre-amendment conduct is not actionable. Retroactive application of the amendment would violate the employer’s due process rights. The plain language of the amendment and its legislative history indicate only prospective application.
(2) Pre-amendment conduct is admissible as background evidence to prove why the post-amendment conduct is discriminatory.
(3) The post-amendment conduct was a single statement by Loeffelholz’s supervisor, who was about to be deployed to Iraq, that he was “going to come back a very angry man.” The court found that a reasonable jury could infer that this comment was a natural extension of pre-amendment conduct – the supervisor’s dislike of lesbians and his anger management problems as illustrated by his comments that he had a volatile temper and kept a gun. This is enough to preclude summary judgment.