Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Dep't, 33352–3–III

CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington
Citation196 Wash.App. 21,381 P.3d 1259
Docket NumberNo. 33352–3–III,33352–3–III
Parties Jonathan J. Sprague, a married man, Appellant, v. Spokane Valley Fire Department, a fire district; Mike Thompson and Linda Thompson, husband and wife, and the marital community composed thereof, Respondents.
Decision Date21 September 2016

196 Wash.App. 21
381 P.3d 1259

Jonathan J. Sprague, a married man, Appellant,
Spokane Valley Fire Department, a fire district; Mike Thompson and Linda Thompson, husband and wife, and the marital community composed thereof, Respondents.

No. 33352–3–III

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3.

September 21, 2016

Matthew C. Albrecht, Albrecht Law PLLC, 421 W. Riverside Ave., Ste. 614, Spokane, WA, 99201–0402, for Appellant.

Jeffrey R. Galloway, Michael J. McMahon, Etter McMahon Lamberson Van Wert & Oresk, 618 W. Riverside Ave., Ste. 210, Spokane, WA, 99201–5048, for Respondents.

381 P.3d 1261

Korsmo, J.

196 Wash.App. 24

¶1 Jonathan Sprague challenges the dismissal at summary judgment of his wrongful termination action, arguing that the Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) violated his First Amendment rights. We affirm.


¶2 Mr. Sprague served as a captain for SVFD. He formed the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship (SCFF) and in 2011 began distributing newsletters and meeting notices for that group via the SVFD e-mail system. Captain Sprague's use of the e-mail system begat controversy and spiraled into this litigation.

¶3 His messages concerning SCFF meetings often contained scriptural passages and mentioned the topics being discussed at the meeting. SVFD responded by reminding Captain Sprague that the e-mail system was to be used for business purposes only and that e-mails should not include religious references. SVFD allowed employees to access their personal e-mail while at work, but they were not permitted to make personal use of the department's system. Sprague complained in writing that the policy constituted religious discrimination. Commissioner Monte Nesbit responded by letter and disagreed with the complaint. He summarized the SVFD e-mail policy:

You may not use department email to post, discuss, or in any way disseminate communications that are sent for any purpose other than official SVFD business. This means you cannot send messages using your official SVFD email which discuss the Fellowship or any other private purpose. [SVFD] email may only be used to disseminate communications concerning official SVFD business.

If you wish to send personal emails while on duty (if otherwise permitted under [SVFD] policy), you may do so using a personal email account (such as a Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, or Comcast account). Using a personal email account, you may only send messages to other personal email accounts. You may
196 Wash.App. 25
not use a personal email account to send messages or solicitations to official SVFD accounts.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 147.

¶4 Commissioner Nesbitt also addressed use of physical and electronic bulletin boards:

You may not post flyers, advertisements, or solicitations that contain a religious message, on either the electronic or physical bulletin boards which are maintained by the SVFD.

You may continue to post flyers or advertisements of local events, food drives, and meetings. The posting may contain information as to the organization, the place, the time/date, the contact information, and the event. These type of postings are acceptable for both the electronic and physical bulletin boards. For example, you might post a notice that the Fellowship is meeting at a particular time and place, but the posting may not have a religious content.

CP at 147–48.

¶5 Captain Sprague, however, declined to follow the policy and insisted on using the SVFD e-mail system to distribute information about meetings of the SCFF. He also continued to employ scriptural passages in the e-mails and in bulletin board postings. A series of progressive disciplinary actions ensued. The first action resulted in a Letter of Counseling concerning misuse of the bulletin boards, followed two weeks later by a Letter of Reprimand involving misuse of the bulletin boards and the e-mail system. Six weeks later a two shift suspension without pay was imposed due to disobedience of an order and violations of the e-mail and bulletin boards policies. The suspension was stayed pending mediation, but the mediation efforts failed.

¶6 Three months after the suspension, SVFD gave notice of its intent to discharge Captain Sprague. The notice alleged that he had engaged in “conduct unbecoming an officer,” insubordination for violating an order of a superior officer, and had willfully violated department rules, procedures, and personnel policies. CP at 208. The

196 Wash.App. 26

Board of Fire Commissioners accepted the termination recommendation and found that Captain Sprague had failed to obey direct orders in violation of

381 P.3d 1262

department practice and personnel policies, resulting in just cause for termination.

¶7 Mr. Sprague appealed to the civil service commission which conducted a public hearing at his request. He made a personal argument to the commission and the parties submitted post-hearing briefs in lieu of closing argument. The commission upheld his termination. It found that SVFD acted in good faith by imposing progressive discipline and that Mr. Sprague's insubordination merited termination. It also found that there was no evidence that SVFD applied its internal policies unevenly or discriminated against Mr. Sprague for expressing his Christian views. The commission also went on to note some relevant law relating to valid restrictions that government entities may place on nonpublic fora in the employment context.

¶8 Mr. Sprague did not appeal the civil service commission ruling. Instead, he instituted an action in superior court against SVFD and its chief. The complaint alleged violation of the free speech and freedom of religion guarantees of both the United States and Washington Constitutions, Mr. Sprague's equal protection rights under both constitutions, the federal civil rights act, and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, ch. 49.60 RCW (WLAD). The complaint sought reinstatement, damages, injunctive relief, and declaratory relief.

¶9 Eventually, the defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of collateral estoppel. The plaintiff, in tum, sought partial summary judgment concerning the constitutionality of the SVFD e-mail policy. The competing motions were argued before Judge Kathleen O'Connor of the Spokane County Superior Court. Plaintiffs counsel told the court that the parties were in agreement about the facts and that his client had been insubordinate; however, the chiefs order that Sprague needed to comply with thee-mail policies was unconstitutional.

196 Wash.App. 27

¶10 Judge O'Connor determined that collateral estoppel barred the plaintiffs cause of action because of the factual findings included in the civil service commission's ruling. She noted that there was identity of issues, identity of parties, and a final judgment that was not appealed. The motion for partial summary judgment was denied and the defense motion for summary judgment was granted.

¶11 Mr. Sprague timely appealed to this court. A panel heard oral argument on the matter.


¶12 This appeal presents two issues that we will address in the following order. First we consider the contention, presented to the trial court by the partial summary judgment motion, that the SVFD e-mail policy is unconstitutional. We then consider whether the trial court properly found the claims barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

¶13 The standards of review governing summary judgment applicable to both issues are well settled. This court sits in the same position as the trial court and considers the issues de novo since our inquiry is the same as the trial court's inquiry. Lybbert v. Grant County, 141 Wash.2d 29, 34, 1 P.3d 1124 (2000). We view the facts, and all reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. If there is no genuine issue of material fact, summary judgment will be granted if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. ; Trimble v. Wash. State Univ., 140 Wash.2d 88, 93, 993 P.2d 259 (2000).

SVFD E-mail Policy

¶14 The initial question before us involves Mr. Sprague's First Amendment challenge to the e-mail policy. Specifically, he argues that SVFD applied an anti-religion policy that was, therefore, not content neutral. His argument challenges the policy as it was allegedly practiced rather than

196 Wash.App. 28

as it was written. However, we turn initially to the official written policy. Given our disposition of the remaining issue, we consider the policy as it was allegedly applied in that section of this opinion.

¶15 When it is alleged that the government is improperly infringing on free speech rights, the first question is to identify the nature of the forum that is being regulated in order to determine what level of judicial scrutiny applies.

381 P.3d 1263

Bradburn v....

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1 cases
  • Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Dep't, 93800-8
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • January 25, 2018
    ...decision, the Court of Appeals upheld the superior court's grant of summary judgment to SVFD. Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Dep't, 196 Wash. App. 21, 381 P.3d 1259 (2016). The majority concluded that Sprague's claims were collaterally estopped by two factual findings made by the Commission......

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