WA Legal Roundup
Four new opinions out of the Washington State Supreme Court today, for a total of seven opinions.
Before I get into the opinions, I feel that I should explain why I rarely, if ever, address the dissent. The amateurlawprof Esser is a blog dedicated to keeping legal practitioners in the know as to the current state of the law. That mission, combined with the realism's of attempting to maintain a blog of this nature while remaining engaged in a thriving legal practice, require that keep things pragmatically limited. If I ever read a dissent that I feel may provide insight into argument that could, in the future, bring about a different result, I will include it. That being said, on to the opinions.
I had the pleasure of watching oral argument in this case, and went in with the feeling that this fell squarely under the public duty doctrine. Leaving oral argument, I felt the same way. The Fisks were driving on 405 in Kirkland when they smelled something burning. They pulled over, and their RV was engulfed in flames. The Kirkland fire Department, responding to the incident, attempted to hook up to a nearby hydrant. However, the water did not have sufficient pressure. The Fisks sued $146,665.50 in damages.
The city first asserted that they were not the water company, which the court quickly dismissed on the grounds that they fit squarely within the statutory definition of a water company. However, the court ruled that the statute did not create a duty to the city because the statute was meant to govern for hire water services, and hydrants are not normally for hire. The court then explosively went on to reject the notion that cities could be "liable in tort for negligence for the increased fire damage because of insufficient water for fire suppression purposes."
Essentially, Mutual of Enumclaw felt that T&G Construction settled without its authority under the contract. Specifically, Mutual of Enumclaw felt that T&G shouldn't have entered into settlement negotiations until MOE had fully litigated a statute of limitations issue which would have significantly reduced potential liability. At the reasonableness hearing for the settlement of $3.3M, the court noted that almost $1M had been spent on litigation, to which T&G may have been liable, and that the statute of limitations defense wasn't in play. The court of appeals had reversed the trial court, and said that MOE's lack of bad faith should have allowed them to fully litigate the SOL issue. However, at the same time, the court of appeals upheld the reasonableness of the settlement.
The supreme court framed the issue as "whether the insured is entitled to an independent determination in a coverage declaratory judgment action of the facts establishing its insured's liability when those disputed facts were considered in the liability case in the parties reached a settlement which was judicially approved is reasonable."
MOE asserted that it was only responsible for those property damages which its insured was legally responsible to pay, in fact, because it was not fully litigated, T&G may not have been legally responsible for the bulk of the settlement. However, the court noted that MOE is bound to what might, or should, have been litigated as well as to what was actually litigated. Under Besel v. Viking Ins. Co. of Wis., 146 Wn.2d 730, 738, 49 P.3d 887 (2002), the court found no problem with the reasonableness of the settlement. MOE asserted that this was not a case of attempting to re-present a defense, but rather, the statute of limitations amounted to a jurisdictional issue. The court held there was nothing different about the statute of limitations in this case, as T&G had no reason to not vigorously argue the defense, trial rulings eliminated the defense, and the statute of limitations defense turned undisputed facts.
The rest of the opinion delves into tinier coverage issues, which you may read the opinion to ascertain.
Radcliffe was read his Miranda rights, which he expressly waived, and he denied the charges are against him, in this case molestation. A second detective took over questioning, whereupon Radcliffe stated that he wasn't sure whether he needed a lawyer. The second detective then asked Radcliffe if he needed his Maranda rights read to him again. Radcliffe stated that he understood his rights, and then he confessed. Normally, when a suspect unequivocally asserts his Miranda rights, police may only ask clarifying questions. However, under Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 459, 114 S. Ct. 2350, 129 L. Ed. 2d 362 (1994), where a suspect has waived his Fifth Amendment rights, to invoke them, he must make an unequivocal expression of intent to invoke the rights; otherwise, police may continue questioning. The supreme court followed the United States Supreme Court, and applied Davis.
Where on employee leaves her job without good cause, she is not entitled to unemployment benefits. This case involves a question of whether that rule applies to employees who leave their jobs through a voluntary separation program initiated by the employer, and whether that program falls within the employer initiated day off exception to the general rule. In this case, an administrative law judge granted summary judgment for the ex-employees, granting them unemployment benefits. Verizon appealed, as it would be required to pay the benefits under Washington law. Verizon had provided employees with information that they would likely be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits under the voluntary reduction in workforce. Verizon also informed employees before the final day in which they could rescind that many of the positions would be backfilled with either new hires or existing personnel.
The court reviewed the administrative law judge's decision based on error of law standard, which provides substantial weight to the agency determination of law within their area of expertise. The exception in WAC 192-150-100 provides:
(1) You will not be considered to have been separated from employment for a disqualifying reason when:
(a) Your employer takes the first action in the separation process by announcing in writing to its employees that:
(i) The employer plans to reduce its work force through a layoff or reduction in force, and
(ii) That employees can offer to be among those included in the layoff or reduction in force;
(b) You offer to be one of the employees included in the layoff or reduction in force; and
(c) Your employer takes the final action in the separation process by accepting your offer to be one of the employees included in the layoff or reduction in force, thereby ending your employment relationship.
(2) This section does not apply to situations where an employer modifies benefits or otherwise encourages early retirement or early separation, but the employer and employee do not follow the steps in subsection (1)(a) through (c).
The court held that the final action requirement had not been satisfied, because for rising had conducted the reduction in workforce in and offer/acceptance model, and was bound by the agreement once employee accepted.The court rejected the argument that, because Verizon chose the sub-group of employees to offer the RIF plan to, that it amounted to a final determination of who could accept the RIF.
The dissent, authored by Justice Chambers and joined by Justice Madsen, looked to both the spirit and the letter of the regulations, and their attempt to shield the employee from being stuck between a rock of involuntary layoff and the hard place of being laid off voluntarily, but with more benefits.
Having worked in a company in which these type of productions occurred,I wholeheartedly agree with Justice Chambers' dissent. I hope that the regulation is changed to maintain the spirit of the law, and to match the economic realities consistent with the dissent.