WA Law Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination Not Retroactive

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Washington Law Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination Not Retroactive
By Nate Bailey
Stoel Rives LLP, Oregon Law Firm
Ahead of Schedule Blog

On September 13, the Washington Supreme Court held that a 2006 amendment to the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, does not apply retroactively. But the Court also held that evidence of pre-amendment harassment is admissible to show why post-amendment conduct is discriminatory.

Loeffelholz, a lesbian, sued the University of Washington in 2009, alleging that Lukehart, her supervisor, harassed her from 2003 to 2006 because of her sexual orientation. She claimed that Lukehart’s conduct had created a hostile work environment. She alleged only one incident, however, that occurred after the effective date of the 2006 amendment, and that incident was not explicitly related to her sexual orientation. The trial court dismissed her claim, stating that Lukehart’s post-amendment conduct was insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim. The court of appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court affirmed in part.

The Supreme Court first determined that the 2006 amendment applies only prospectively. Thus, Loeffelholz was not entitled to recover for Lukehart’s actions before the amendment’s effective date. The Supreme Court held, however, that evidence of Lukehart’s pre-amendment conduct was admissible as context to prove that his post-amendment behavior was discriminatory. The only explicit comments Lukehart made regarding Loeffelholz’s sexual orientation, asking if she was gay and telling her not to “flaunt it,” occurred when she started working in 2003. The Court further held that if Loeffelholz prevailed in her post-amendment hostile work environment claim, she would be entitled to damages from the effective date of the amendment, not just from the date of Lukehart’s post-amendment conduct.

Thus, while Loeffelholz v. University of Washington precludes recovery for sexual orientation discrimination occurring before the amendment, it does allow employees to bolster sexual orientation discrimination claims with evidence of pre-amendment conduct.