Roger Leishman v. Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC and Patrick Pearce, 196 Wn.2d 898 (2021)

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June 1, 2021

Washington Supreme Court clarifies which parties are protect from SLAPP lawsuits.

Roger Leishman, an openly gay man, was hired by the Washington Attorney General’s Office
(“AGO”). Early into this employment, Leishman developed symptoms associated with a medical
diagnosis of PTSD and anxiety. Leishman advised his employer of this diagnosis and its
symptoms. In January 2016, Leishman discovered he did not receive a raise due to complaints from
his supervisor regarding his conduct at work.

In March 2016, he informally complained that his supervisor made homophobic statements towards
him. A meeting was held where Leishman’s supervisor denied any allegations of wrongdoing and
Leishman admitted that he became angry during this meeting. After the meeting, Leishman
formally submitted his complaint, and his supervisor submitted a complaint regarding Leishman’s
conduct during the meeting. Leishman was terminated as a result.

Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC (“OMW”) was hired to conduct investigations into both
complaints. OMW did not inform Leishman that the investigation covered both complaints, and
Leishman thought the investigation was solely for the discrimination complaint. OMW found that
Leishman violated work policy and there was insufficient evidence to establish a discrimination
violation. Leishman brought suit against the AGO and the parties subsequently settled.

Leishman then sued OMW alleging negligence, violations of the CPA, negligent misrepresentation,
and discrimination. OMW filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that OMW had
immunity under RCW 4.24.510. The trial court granted OMW’s motion, and Leishman appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “government contractors, when communicating to a
government agency under the scope of their contract, are not ‘persons’ entitled to protection under
RCW 4.24.510.” The Washington Supreme Court granted review and ruled that a government
contractor is covered by the immunity provided in RCW 4.24.510 because the plain language of the
term “person” unambiguously includes individuals and organizations, regardless of their contract
with the government.

Discussion: In the 1970s, growing litigation targeted nongovernmental individuals and groups for
communicating their views to a government body/official on an issue of some public interest. These
were known as SLAPP suits. Washington enacted its anti-SLAPP statute, RCW 4.24.510, in
1989. The anti-SLAPP statute provided immunity to a “person” who communicates a complaint or
information to a government agency for claims based on the communication regarding any matter
reasonably of concern to that agency.

It is of note that the contents of this lawsuit do not resemble a typical SLAPP suit. However, the
plain language of the statute makes it clear communications are protected “regardless of content or
motive.” Additionally, the plain language of the statute makes it clear that the legislature intended
“person” to include non-government organizations. In creating this statute, the legislature
specifically insulated individuals and organizations from civil liability when they communicate
information to the government.

Briefing by Joshua H. Tinajero, an Associate Attorney in Holt Woods & Scisciani’s Seattle
of ice. Joshua is licensed to practice in Alaska and Washington.

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