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WA Supreme Court Clarifies Standard For Asserting Discrimination Claims; Reinstates Age And Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

Posted Wednesday, October 25, 2017 by McKean J. Evans

The Washington Supreme Court’s recent En Banc ruling in Mikkelsen v. Public Utility District No. 1 of Kittitas County clarifies what an employee must allege in order to sue for illegal discrimination under Washington law. In that case, Kim Mikkelsen sued the Kittitas County Public Utility District No. 1 (“District”), alleging the District fired her due to her manager’s bias against women and older employees. Mikkelsen alleged her termination violated Washington’s Law Against Discrimination.

Mikkelsen worked for the District for several decades without incident until the Board hired a new general manager, Charles Ward, in 2010. Mikkelsen claimed Ward excluded Mikkelsen from emails with Mikkelsen’s male co-workers, was belligerent with her, talked over her in meetings and undermined her authority in front of other employees.
After Mikkelsen complained to the District and emailed the District a survey she proposed sending to other employees asking if they felt Ward engaged in gender discrimination, Ward fired Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen had not previously been reprimanded or disciplined during her employment at the District. The District replaced Mikkelsen with a 51 year old woman and subsequently fired Ward.

The Supreme Court clarified that Mikkelsen could allege age and gender discrimination claims even though the District replaced her with a 51 year old woman. The court observed nearly every federal court to address the question under analogous federal law reached the same result. The fact that a female or over-40 plaintiff claiming discrimination was replaced by another woman over age 40 might be relevant evidence that no discrimination occurred, but, the court ruled, it does not foreclose proving the plaintiff was fired for a discriminatory reason.

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