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Alderson v. Inland Communication Service Co.

April 15, 1997

DAN R. ALDERSON, APPELLANT,
v.
INLAND COMMUNICATION SERVICE COMPANY, RESPONDENT.



Appeal from Superior Court of Spokane County. Docket No: 94-2-00657-1. Date filed: 08/25/95. Judge signing: Hon. Thomas E. Merryman.

Petition for Review Denied October 9, 1997, Reported at: 1997 Wash. LEXIS

Authored by Dennis J. Sweeney. Concurring: John A. Schultheis, Stephen M. Brown.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sweeney

SWEENEY, C.J. To establish a prima facie case of handicap discrimination, a plaintiff must show a handicap, satisfactory work performance, and replacement by a person who is not handicapped. Lords v. Northern Automotive Corp., 75 Wash. App. 589, 601, 881 P.2d 256 (1994). The burden then shifts to the employer to establish a nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. Fell v. Spokane Transit Auth., 128 Wash. 2d 618, 634, 911 P.2d 1319 (1996). If the employer meets its burden, the plaintiff has to show that the employer's nondiscriminatory reason is a pretext. Lords, 75 Wash. App. at 601. The dispositive question here is whether Dan R. Alderson established that Inland Communication Service Company's reason for his discharge financial troubles was a pretext. We hold he did and reverse the judgment.

FACTS

Mr. Alderson lost a leg while serving in Viet Nam. In 1981, Inland hired him to repair hand-carried radios and pagers. It is undisputed that Inland accommodated Mr. Alderson's handicap during his employment and that Mr. Alderson's work performance was satisfactory.

In 1990, Edward Stewart, Lenore Elvington, and James Colville purchased Inland. The company soon began to experience financial problems.

In 1992, Inland terminated Mr. Alderson and six other employees.

Mr. Alderson filed this action on February 3, 1994, for employment discrimination. Inland asserted that the nondiscriminatory business reason for the termination was its financial condition. At trial, Mr. Stewart testified when he purchased his one-third share of Inland, he saw "an opportunity to make more money on the larger projects . . . as opposed to just piecemeal work at the shop." He claimed that Mr. Alderson was not qualified to work on several pieces of equipment. He acknowledged that Mr. Alderson's replacement, who is not handicapped, devoted about 10 to 15 percent of his work time to field work.

Mr. Colville testified that Inland did not consider Mr. Alderson's lack of mobility in deciding whether to terminate him. He acknowledged that Mr. Alderson's replacement and all of Inland's present technicians do field work. Mr. Colville said that when the owners were deciding whom to lay off, they considered whether a worker could do field work. If a worker could not, he or she was not going to "make the cut." Mr. Colville said that it was a "coincidence" that all of Inland's remaining technicians did field work.

By special verdict form, the jury was asked:

1: Did Inland Communication Service Company engage in unlawful handicap discrimination in the layoff of plaintiff?

ANSWER: Yes (Yes or No)

GO TO QUESTION NO. 2.

2: Did Inland Communication Service Company engage in unlawful handicap discrimination against plaintiff by failing to ...


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