Arnold v. City of Seattle

Decision Date05 May 2016
Docket NumberNo. 91742–6.,91742–6.
CourtWashington Supreme Court
PartiesGeorgiana ARNOLD, Respondent, v. CITY OF SEATTLE, d/b/a Human Services Department, Petitioner.

Paul J. Lawrence, Gregory J. Wong, Sarah Stewart Washburn, Molly Margaret Daily, Seattle City Attorneys Office, Seattle, WA, for Petitioner.

Judith A. Lonnquist, Law Offices of Judith A. Lonnquist, P.S., Philip Albert Talmadge, Talmadge/Fitzpatrick/Tribe, Seattle, WA, for Respondent.

Susan Sackett Danpullo, Margaret C. McLean, Office of the Attorney General, Khalia Gibson Davis, Washington State Attorney General's Office, Labor & Personnel A.G. Office, Attorney at Law, Olympia, WA, amicus counsel for Attorney General.

Bryan Harnetiaux, WA State Ass'n for Justice Foundation, Spokane, WA, George M. Ahrend, Ahrend Law Firm PLLC, Moses Lake, WA, amicus counsel for Washington Association for Justice Foundation.

Joseph Robert Shaeffer, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, Daniel Foster Johnson, Breskin Johnson & Townsend PLLC, Seattle, WA, amicus counsel for Washington Employment Lawyers Association.

FAIRHURST

, J.

RCW 49.48.030

provides that employees are entitled to reasonable attorney fees from their employer or former employer [i]n any action in which any person is successful in recovering judgment for wages or salary owed to him or her.” This case concerns whether a city of Seattle (City) employee who recovered wages from a Seattle Civil Service Commission (Commission) hearing is entitled to attorney fees under RCW 49.48.030 when the city code provides she may be represented in those proceedings only at her own expense. See Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 4.04.260(E). After Georgiana Arnold recovered wages from the civil service proceeding, she initiated an action in superior court requesting attorney fees. The trial court denied attorney fees, but the Court of Appeals reversed and granted her attorney fees. We affirm and hold that the commission proceedings at issue here constitute an “action” for which RCW 49.48.030 provides attorney fees when requested in a separate court action.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2 Arnold was employed as a manager for the City's Human Services Department in the Aging and Disability Services Division. In 2011, the City discharged Arnold from her management position and demoted her to a significantly lower paying entry-level position for failing to adequately supervise one of her employees who the City ultimately discovered had embezzled city funds.

¶ 3 Seattle's civil service code provides a mechanism for aggrieved civil service employees to appeal adverse employment decisions (including demotion, suspension, and termination). SMC 4.04.260(A). After an employee exhausts certain grievance remedies, she may appeal her disciplinary decision to the Commission. Id. The Commission may refer the matter to a hearing examiner, and an employee may appeal the hearing examiner's decision to the Commission. SMC 4.04.250(L)(7). The Commission conducts hearings where it has the authority to “administer oaths, issue subpoenas, receive evidence, compel the production of documents for such purposes, and ... question witnesses.” SMC 4.04.250(L)(3). Employees have the “right to cross-examine witnesses and to produce relevant evidence at hearings.” SMC 4.04.260(G). The Commission has authority to issue remedial orders including reinstatement, SMC 4.04.250(L)(5), and must issue its decision within 90 days after a hearing, SMC 4.04.260(H). Although an employee has the right to be represented by a person of her choice, the code provides that she must do so “at his/her own expense.” SMC 4.04.260(E).

¶ 4 Arnold utilized this process when she appealed her demotion to the Commission. She hired counsel to represent her.1 The Commission consolidated her case with another employee's and assigned the case to a hearing examiner. The hearing lasted eight days and included written discovery and depositions, significant briefing, witness testimony and cross-examination, thousands of pages of exhibits and record, evidentiary rulings, and an audio recording of the proceedings. The hearing examiner issued a 25–page decision that analyzed the two employees' discipline in detail and compared it to that of other employees. The hearing examiner concluded that their discipline was too harsh and, therefore, reversed Arnold's demotion and reduced her discipline to a two week suspension. The decision ordered Arnold's employer to reinstate her to her former manager position and awarded back pay and other employee benefits.

Arnold then requested attorney fees pursuant to RCW 49.48.030

. The hearing examiner denied her request for attorney fees, and the Commission affirmed, stating, [T]here is no statutory authority in the Seattle Municipal Code for the Civil Service Commission to award attorney's fees.” Clerk's Papers (CP) at 7.

¶ 6 After the Commission denied attorney fees, Arnold instituted an action in King County Superior Court requesting attorney fees under RCW 49.48.030

.2 The trial court dismissed the case. Arnold sought direct review, and we transferred the case to the Court of Appeals.

¶ 7 Division One of the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that Arnold was entitled to attorney fees under RCW 49.48.030

. Arnold v. City of Seattle, 186 Wash.App. 653, 345 P.3d 1285 (2015). Division One recognized some disagreement among the Court of Appeals divisions over the application of RCW 49.48.030 in similar proceedings. After reexamining these conflicting cases in light of our precedent, the Court of Appeals concluded that civil service appeals constitute ‘Faction[s] and their decisions awarding back pay constitute ‘judgment[s] for which attorney fees are available under RCW 49.48.030. Id. at 664, 345 P.3d 1285. According to the Court of Appeals' interpretation of RCW 49.48.030, [a] person may seek an award of attorney fees from the superior court under this statute upon winning an appeal to a city civil service commission that results in an order for back pay.” Id. at 655, 345 P.3d 1285. We granted review. Arnold v. City of Seattle, 184 Wash.2d 1001, 357 P.3d 665 (2015).

II. ANALYSIS

¶ 8 We must determine whether an employee who recovers wages from a commission proceeding is entitled to attorney fees under RCW 49.48.030

when requested in a separate superior court action. We conclude that Arnold is entitled to recover these attorney fees.

¶ 9 RCW 49.48.030

provides that any person who is successful in recovering a judgment for wages [i]n any action” is entitled to attorney fees from her employer. (Emphasis added.) This case primarily concerns whether the City's civil service proceedings are “actions” within the meaning of RCW 49.48.030. We must also address whether the City's statutory authority, including a provision explicitly providing that individuals may be represented only at their own expense in commission hearings, prohibits attorney fee awards under RCW 49.48.030.

A. Relevant authority

¶ 10 Arnold relies heavily on our interpretation of this statute in International Ass'n of Fire Fighters, Local 46 v. City of Everett, 146 Wash.2d 29, 42 P.3d 1265 (2002)

, which held that an arbitration proceeding awarding back pay constitutes an “action” for which a union could recover attorney fees when requested in a separate superior court action. Arnold asserts the administrative proceeding at issue here should be considered an “action” as we defined that term in Fire Fighters.

However, Fire Fighters expressly declined to address whether its holding would extend to administrative or quasi-judicial proceedings outside of arbitration. Id. at 42 n. 11, 42 P.3d 1265.

¶ 11 The City relies more on Court of Appeals decisions assessing the availability of attorney fees under RCW 49.48.030

. Although lower courts have analyzed proceedings similar to the one at issue, these cases rest on premises that arguably conflict with our decision in Fire Fighters and the general policy of the statute.

In Fire Fighters, we held that RCW 49.48.030

provides attorney fees for successful grievance arbitration proceedings. Id. at 32, 42 P.3d 1265. The arbitration proceeding in Fire Fighters arose after the city of Everett suspended two firefighters without pay for 24 hours. Id. The employees' union brought a grievance proceeding challenging the suspension, and the matter was submitted to arbitration pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the union and Everett. Id. The union retained counsel for the two day arbitration proceeding. Id. The arbiter ruled in favor of the union and awarded the employees back pay. Id. Everett paid the wages as ordered but refused the union's request for attorney fees. Id. at 32–33, 42 P.3d 1265.

¶ 13 The union and two employees then filed a separate lawsuit in Snohomish County Superior Court seeking attorney fees. Id. at 33, 42 P.3d 1265

. The trial court granted Everett's motion for summary judgment, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding the union was entitled to attorney fees for both the arbitration proceedings and the court proceedings seeking attorney fees under RCW 49.48.030. We affirmed. Id. at 51–52, 42 P.3d 1265.

¶ 14 Our opinion in Fire Fighters rested on three rationales that are relevant here. First, we cited the strong remedial purpose of the statute favoring employees' wage rights and emphasized that we should interpret the statute in light of this purpose. Id. at 34–36, 42 P.3d 1265

. Second, we determined that grievance arbitration constitutes an “action” for purposes of RCW 49.48.030. Id. at 36–41, 42 P.3d 1265. Third, we concluded that employees or their representatives need not recover wages in the same action in which they recover attorney fees—it is permissible to initiate a separate lawsuit in court to recover fees from the successful arbitration proceeding.

Id. at 41–44, 42 P.3d 1265

. The legislature has not substantively amended RCW 49.48.030 since our ...

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