Reninger v. State Dept. of Corrections

Decision Date26 February 1998
Docket NumberNo. 63661-3,63661-3
Citation134 Wn.2d 437,951 P.2d 782
Parties, 13 IER Cases 1290 Richard RENINGER and Joanne Reninger, husband and wife; and William Cohen, Petitioners, and Claire L. Thompson Cohen, Plaintiff, v. STATE of Washington DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS; Robert Shepherd and Robin Shepherd, husband and wife, and their marital community; Allen Scamahorn and Margarette Scamahorn, husband and wife, and their marital community; Don Daniel and Leota Daniel, husband and wife, and their marital community, Respondents, and William Callahan and Sharon Callahan, husband and wife, and their marital community; Jim Spaulding and Jane Doe Spaulding, husband and wife, and their marital community, Defendants.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

Stephen Smith, Bellevue, for Petitioners.

Christine O. Gregoire, Atty. Gen., Michael P. Lynch, Asst. Atty. Gen., Olympia, for Respondents.

Burgess, Fitzer, Leighton & Phillips, John Kugler, Tacoma, amicus curiae on behalf of Washington Ass'n of Prosecuting Attorneys.

TALMADGE, Justice.

We are asked in this case to decide if state correctional officers who were disciplined through the State's personnel process can, after losing their appeals of that discipline before the State Personnel Appeals Board (PAB), state in superior court claims for wrongful constructive discharge or tortious interference with a business expectancy. We hold those officers do not have a cause of action for wrongful constructive discharge under Washington law on these facts and collateral estoppel bars their tortious interference claim. We reverse the trial court's judgment and remand the case for entry of an order dismissing the officers' claims with prejudice.


1. Do the officers state a claim for wrongful constructive discharge where they fail to prove they were constructively terminated in contravention of public policy?

2. Are the officers collaterally estopped from asserting a claim of tortious interference with a business expectancy where they litigated their discipline administratively in the state personnel process and the Personnel Appeals Board ultimately ruled against them?


William Cohen began with the Department of Corrections (DOC) in 1975 at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. While at Shelton he was part of the statewide Emergency Response Team, which the Department of Corrections used to quell disturbances in state prisons. He was involved in terminating the riots at the Walla Walla prison in 1978-79. As a result of his Emergency Response Team activities, he was known and disliked by prisoners statewide. He claimed to have received injury and death threats during his time at the Shelton facility. He became a lieutenant in 1981 and transferred to McNeil Island Correctional Center (McNeil). He was qualified as a master firearms instructor and a sniper. He became the commanding officer of the McNeil Island Correctional Center Emergency Response Team (ERT).

Richard Reninger became a state correctional officer in 1981 when the Department of Corrections took over the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island. Prior to that, Reninger had been an employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He became a member of Cohen's ERT at McNeil, and in 1988 was appointed Armory Sergeant. His duties as Armory Sergeant included maintaining and accounting for firearms and equipment.

On October 18, 1988, Reninger and Cohen trained other correctional officers for weapons recertification. To conduct the training, Reninger and Cohen removed weapons and ammunition from the armory and transported the equipment and the trainees to the firing range. At the range, they first moved the equipment into the range office and later took the equipment to the range for the actual training. While the weapons were not in use, they were kept in the range office. The standard procedure for the training session was, once the class ended, all weapons were moved back to the vehicle and the range office was cleared of any weapons. The group would then drive back to the armory and move all the weapons and ammunition back into the armory. Reninger and Cohen testified they properly returned and secured the firearms that day.

However, when Reninger returned to the armory on Monday, October 24, 1988, he noticed three shotguns were missing from their slots. After searching for the shotguns, Reninger called Correctional Captain Allen Scamahorn. Captain Scamahorn summoned Reninger to his office and informed him that Captain Daniel had found the three shotguns at the range office.

Cohen and Reninger denied leaving the shotguns unsecured at the range office. However, on October 24, 1988, Captain Daniel filed employee conduct reports against each, alleging on Saturday, October 22, 1988, he looked through the window of the range office, saw the barrel of a shotgun, entered the building, and discovered the three shotguns.

McNeil Superintendent William Callahan, in his capacity as Administrative Reviewer, conducted an investigation. As a result of his investigation, he notified Cohen and Reninger by letter dated January 23, 1989 of his conclusions that they had neglected their duty, were inefficient, and were guilty of gross misconduct in failing properly to account for the shotguns. He temporarily demoted both of them--Cohen from Correctional Lieutenant to Correctional Sergeant, and Reninger from Correctional Sergeant to Correctional Officer--with an accompanying reduction in pay, for a period commencing February 10, 1989, and ending June 29, 1989. He also reassigned them to duties at a segregation unit at McNeil.

Reninger and Cohen appealed their demotions to an administrative hearing examiner. In proceedings before the hearing examiner, both Cohen and Reninger were represented by counsel, as was the DOC; both counsel gave opening and closing statements; both parties called and cross-examined witnesses who appeared and testified under oath; both Cohen and Reninger were afforded an opportunity to examine DOC documents and admit exhibits; both counsel were afforded an opportunity to make objections and receive rulings on them by the hearing examiner, who was a licensed attorney; both counsel were given the opportunity to submit hearing memoranda; and both counsel conducted formal depositions under oath prior to the hearing. The examiner decided against them. Cohen and Reninger then appealed that decision to the PAB, where another hearing was held in February 1990.

Before the PAB, Reninger and Cohen argued the charges resulted from a conspiracy by other officers to implicate them for leaving the shotguns unattended. The PAB found against them, noting Cohen and Reninger failed to account for the weapons after the training was completed; there was no evidence that anyone else had access to the weapons during the time period in question; and there was no evidence of collusion by other officers to implicate Cohen and Reninger. The PAB concluded Cohen and Reninger committed gross misconduct and that the four-and-one-half-month demotions were appropriate. Cohen and Reninger appealed the PAB decision to the superior court, but that appeal was dismissed. 1

Reninger and Cohen took sick leave commencing January 23, 1989. Because they alleged they would come into potentially hazardous contact with inmates in their new assignments, and they feared for their safety, both officers resigned in March 1989 rather than accept the specific new assignments. 2

In June 1990, Cohen and Reninger filed a complaint in the Pierce County Superior Court against DOC, Callahan, Scamahorn, Daniel, and Shepherd alleging (1) DOC wrongfully terminated their employment by wrongful constructive discharge in reassigning them to unreasonably hazardous duties; (2) their fellow officers tortiously interfered with their employment by setting them up for undeserved discipline for alleged failure properly to secure firearms; and (3) the tort of outrage.

The defendants moved for summary judgment claiming Cohen and Reninger's exclusive remedy was under civil service law, which precluded a claim of wrongful constructive discharge, and the employees were collaterally estopped from asserting facts contrary to those found by the PAB relating to the tortious interference claim. The trial court dismissed several claims, but denied the motion to dismiss the wrongful constructive discharge claim against DOC, and the outrage and tortious interference claims against the individual defendants. The trial court also granted the officers' motion to exclude any evidence or testimony regarding the discipline by the PAB, but denied the defendants' motion to exclude any reference to the proceedings on the officers' unemployment compensation claim before the Department of Employment Security.

The jury rendered a verdict in favor of the officers against the defendants except Callahan 3 on constructive wrongful discharge and tortious interference, but not on the outrage claim. The verdicts totaled $537,307. The trial court also awarded attorney fees and costs pursuant to RCW 49.48.030 in the amount of $144,922.80. The defendants appealed the judgment on the verdict of the jury to the Court of Appeals. The officers did not cross-appeal the denial of their outrage claim.

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment on the verdict of the jury, finding Reninger and Cohen had failed to state a claim for constructive wrongful discharge because civil service remedies for a claim of improper work assignment are exclusive, and because the officers were collaterally estopped by the PAB findings to deny they had been involved in misconduct. The Court of Appeals also applied collateral estoppel to the tortious inference claim. Reninger v. Department of Corrections, 79 Wash.App. 623, 901 P.2d 325 (1995). Reninger and Cohen petitioned for review, which we granted.

1. Civil Service Exclusive Remedy


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