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Originally published October 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 4, 2008 at 12:26 AM

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Washington Supreme Court rules victims' job rights are protected

A deeply divided Washington Supreme Court has ruled that the jobs of victims of domestic violence, who are forced to take time off work to look out for themselves or their families, are protected.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A deeply divided Washington Supreme Court ruled Friday that jobs are protected for victims of domestic violence who are forced to take time off work to look out for themselves or their families.

The ruling — with four written opinions in all — comes nearly two years after a federal judge asked the state's justices to resolve the question. Just three of the nine justices signed the majority opinion.

The case involves a federal lawsuit filed in 2005 by Ramona Danny, who was a salaried scheduler for Laidlaw Transit, which provides public transportation services in King County.

The lawsuit alleges that, in 2003, Danny was in an abusive relationship and had to take two weeks off after her then-husband beat their 13-year-old so badly the child had to be hospitalized.

In that time, the lawsuit says, she attended criminal-court hearings against her husband, moved herself and her five children into a shelter and obtained a protective order.

She had been working on a large project with looming deadlines, and when she returned to work she was demoted. She was later fired, she claims, when she protested her demotion to the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

Laidlaw says she was fired for falsifying her timecard.

Though Washington law says workers without a contract can quit or be fired without explanation, Danny sued, saying her firing was counter to clearly mandated public policy. It was similar, she argued, to firing a worker who missed time for jury duty or military service.

Laidlaw alleged in the federal-court case that Danny could not show that Washington had such a clearly mandated policy, and indeed, even Danny's attorneys acknowledge there is no one law that establishes one.

They argued, however, that politicians and judges established such a policy over the past 30 years by refining laws and adopting and supporting ever more protections for domestic-violence victims.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik stayed Danny's federal trial and in 2006 sent the question of the existence of such a clear public policy to the Washington Supreme Court.

In Friday's majority opinion, justices said that "the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government have repeatedly declared that it is the public policy of this state to prevent domestic violence by encouraging ... victims to escape violent situations, protect children from abuse, report domestic violence to law enforcement, and assist efforts to hold their abusers accountable."

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The other justices wrote three concurring and dissenting opinions that show the court was fractured over the issues, which included concerns about the impact of the ruling on employers. In the dissent, Justice James Johnson wryly observed the difficulty of reaching a consensus: "We have been asked to answer a single, legal question ... The fact that four opinions have been issued — and that we have decided to reformulate the question to avoid the issue entirely — dictates the answer that no such 'clear' mandate exists."

Last year, while the case was pending, the Legislature unanimously passed a law that provides "reasonable leave" for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking so they can seek medical treatment, social services, shelter and police assistance.

One of Laidlaw's attorneys, Karen Kruse, said the company was not prepared to make a statement Friday.

Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, which is representing Danny, said lawmakers and other public officials, for more than 30 years, "have repeatedly denounced the terrible consequence of domestic violence" and worked to help its victims.

"All of that is rendered meaningless, however, if a woman like Ms. Danny has to put her job at risk in order to protect herself and her children," she said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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