Washington State Supreme Court Expands the Protections of the Washington Law Against Discrimination

In a new case (Zhu v. North Central Educational Services), the Washington State Supreme Court has held that the Washington Law Against Discrimination protects job applicants from “retaliatory discrimination” (i.e. an employer who refuses to hire an applicant in retaliation for the applicant opposing discrimination in a prior job).

The Case

In this case, the plaintiff had previously been a math teacher in the Waterville School District. In 2010, the plaintiff sued the District for race discrimination and retaliation.  The case was ultimately settled and, as a part of the settlement, the plaintiff resigned from his teaching job.

Following his resignation, the plaintiff applied for a position with North Central Educational Services District No. 171 (an agency that provides cooperative and informational services to local school districts – including the Waterville School District).  The hiring committe for North Central Educational Services District was aware of the plaintiff’s past lawsuit and ultimately, the plaintiff was not hired for the position.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit against North Central Educational Services District claiming that he was “blacklisted” from jobs within North Central Educational Services District because of his prior lawsuit against the Waterville School District.

The case ultimately went before a jury, who found that North Central Educational Services’ failure to hire the plaintiff amounted to unlawfully retaliation in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (finding that North Central Educational Services refused to hire the plaintiff because of his past lawsuit against the school district).  The plaintiff was awarded $450,000.

This case was appealed up to the Washington Supreme Court where the question before the court was whether the Washington Law Against Discrimination “created a cause of action for job applicants who claim a prospective employer refused to hire them in retaliation for prior opposition to discrimination against a different employer?”

The Court’s Holding

In a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court unequivocally found that retaliatory discrimination against job applicants by prospective employers is prohibited under the Washington Law Against Discrimination.  While this holding did expand the reach of the Washington Law Against Discrimination, the holding itself is not all that surprising. 

The Washington Law Against Discrimination prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees on the basis of protected characteristics such as race, sex, or national origin. In addition, this law also prohibits employers from engaging in retaliatory discrimination against employees who previously opposed the employer’s discriminatory practices.  In making this rule, the Court merely extended the retaliatory discrimination provision to include applicants.  The Court’s rationale behind the ruling – to hold otherwise might dissuade employees “from opposing discriminatory practices for fear of being unofficially ‘blacklisted’ by prospective future employers.”

Take Home For Employers

This case is significant for Washington employers because it serves as a reminder that discrimination in the hiring practice is unlawful.  Employers cannot “penalize” a prospective employee because he/she files a discrimination claim against a former employer.  It is recommended that employers train those employees involved in the hiring process about this new law.