Collaboration in Civic Spheres

UW gay discrimination case reinstated by appeals court

by Kyle Kim June 28th, 2011


SUMMARY:The Washington State Court of Appeals yesterday rescinded an April 2010 King County Superior Court ruling that dismissed a gay discrimination case against the University of Washington and a former supervisor. Debra Loeffelholz alleges UW and her former supervisor, James Lukehart, created a hostile work environment by discriminating against her based on sexual orientation. The appeals court concluded the trial court erred in its ruling that the alleged discriminatory acts against Loeffelholz did not meet the three-year statute of limitations. At the center of the case – which has now been kicked back to the lower court – is whether or not Lukehart’s last alleged hostile act does in fact fall within the statute of limitations.

BACKGROUND: The Washington Law Against Discrimination states that in order to prove the existence of a hostile work environment, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the harassment was unwelcomed; that the discrimination was targeted towards a protected class that includes gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation; the act affected the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment; and that the discriminatory act is attributable to the employer. Additionally, the plaintiff must file the complaint within the three-year statute of limitations given to discrimination claims in Washington state. After an initial lower court ruling dismissing her case, Loeffelholz submitted an appeal in September, 2010.

KEY LINK:“Debra Loeffelholz, Appellant V. University Of Washington, Et Al., Respondents,” Court of Appeals of the State of Washington, Division One, Seattle, June 27, 2011.

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KEY FINDINGS:

  • The Washington State Court of Appeals rescinded the previous dismissal of the case because, though the record does not show the exact date, the last alleged discriminatory act fit within the three-year statute of limitations by roughly one month since the suit was filed May 13, 2009, according to court records. The case was sent back to King County Superior Court for further proceedings.
  • Since the Washington Law Against Discrimination was amended to add sexual orientation as a protected class on June 7, 2006, evidence must be proved to the court that Lukehart’s last discriminatory act was made after the amended bill was put into effect since the law cannot be applied retroactively.
  • Shortly after Debra Loeffelholz was hired as a program coordinator for facility services at the University of Washington in 2003, then-supervisor James Lukehart told her not to flaunt her (lesbian) sexual orientation around him, according to the court document. Loeffelholz was assigned a new supervisor in 2006.
  • Loeffelholz lost flex time privileges and approval to attend training seminars after she told Lukehart about being gay, according to the court document. Lukehart also refused to complete work evaluations of Loeffelholz, despite her request.
  • A reserve soldier, Lukehart left his UW job due to deployment in Iraq in June, 2006, according to the court record. During Lukehart’s last group meeting at UW before employment, he said he would come back from Iraq “a very angry man,” according to court documents.
  • Lukehart’s supervisor Rick Cheney launched a formal investigation with UW’s Human Resources Department in response to complaints made by several employees. The investigation found Lukehart was manipulative, intimidated coworkers and inappropriately shared personal information about other employees, according to the published court opinions.

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