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Stalking victim may sue employer: Court


An appeals court in Washington ruled Tuesday that a public defender who was stalked by a client with a history of stalking and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result can sue her employer under hostile work environment laws and that workers compensation code does not prevent her from doing so.

In a partial reversal of a trial court’s dismissal of a hostile work environment, negligence and disability discrimination case filed by the public defender against King County, Washington, and the Public Defender Association, the Court of Appeals of Washington, Division II ruled that the repeated stalking behavior by a criminal client is not a mental injury that falls within the state’s definition per comp law, according to documents in No. 50858-3-II, filed in Tacoma, Washington.

The public defender had served as a contractor with the county starting in 2009. In 2012, she was assigned to represent “Mr. Smith” on felony stalking charges — a second time for the defendant who had been charged previously with the same crime and had been represented by another female attorney who asked to be removed from that case because of his repeated stalking behavior, according to documents.

Upon representing Mr. Smith on the subsequent case, the second lawyer was “was not given any information about Smith's history of stalking professional women or his interaction with (the other female lawyer) and was not warned of any potential danger in representing him,” documents state.

“In late March 2013, during (the second) representation, Smith began to make repeated sexually motivated, harassing phone calls to (the lawyer) at work. Smith told (her) that he loved her, wanted to marry her, and wanted to be with her. By April, Smith was calling (her) 10 to 20 times a day and making more disturbing sexual and offensive comments,” documents state.

The lawyer repeatedly informed her supervisor of the harassment and stalking: “(she) stated that she thought she needed to get off the case. (Her supervisor) said `Okay,' in an irritated, dismissive, angry, impatient tone,” documents state. “A few days later after giving the matter some thought, (she) told (the supervisor) that she would try to finish the case because she was almost done with the representation.”

Eventually she sought permission from the court to be removed from representing Mr. Smith, a request that was granted in July 2013. The stalking continued and escalated.

“In February 2014, Smith jumped out at (her) in the parking garage, left lingerie on her car, left literature in her mailbox, and came repeatedly to her house. He hid in her backyard, appeared at her bedroom window in the middle of the night, and broke a bedroom window. He sent messages about seeing (her), her daughter, and a man who came to her home. (The lawyer) sent emails to her County supervisors detailing these contacts,” documents state.

By 2015 she was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from the repeated harassment and requested medical leave as a result. In 2017 the county, which granted her earlier leave, terminated her employment because she was unable to work as public defender, documents state.

She then filed a lawsuit against Public Defenders Association and the county, claiming that they had violated state antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide a non-hostile work environment free of harassment and engaging in other discriminatory conduct, documents state.

Both defendants filed motions to dismiss, “arguing that they could not be liable as a matter of law for Smith's harassing conduct” and in part that the state’s Industrial Insurance Act could bar the suit from proceeding.

In ruling that the trial court erred in granting two of the dismissals, the three-judge panel with the appeals remanded the case, stating that “because under certain circumstances, an employer may be subject to liability for a hostile work environment claim based on a nonemployee's harassment of an employee in the workplace” and that workers comp law does not classify repeated incidents of stress as an occupational injury, that mental injuries are compensable under comp if they arise out of one incident. 

The appeals court did, however, affirm the dismissal of the discrimination charges, which it said were not supported by facts.

Attorneys and defendants involved in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.










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