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Honeycutt v. Washington State

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

January 30, 2017



          Spearman, J.

         The family care act (FCA), chapter 49.12 RCW, does not require employers to provide paid leave. But where an employer provides paid leave for an employee's own use, the FCA mandates that the employee may use that leave to care for an eligible family member. RCW 49.12.270. If more than one type of leave is available, the employee may choose which type of "sick leave or other paid time off' to use for family care. RCW 49.12.270(1). When an employee takes time off to care for a sick family member and the employer does not allow paid time off "for illness, " the FCA allows the employee to access paid leave provided through a disability plan. RCW 49.12.265(5). Disability plans maintained through insurance or governed by the employee security retirement income security act of 1974 (ERISA)[1] are exempt from this provision of the FCA. Id.

         We are asked to decide whether, in the context of the FCA, time allowed to an employee "for illness" is the equivalent of "sick leave." We conclude that it is and reverse the Department of Labor & Industries' (Department) ruling to the contrary. We remand for a determination of whether Phillips 66 Company's disability plan is exempt from the FCA because it is maintained through insurance or governed by ERISA.


         Phillips 66 does not provide sick leave. When employees of Phillips 66 miss work due to illness, they may receive paid time off through a short term disability (STD) plan. The STD plan functions much like traditional sick leave. To use STD benefits, an employee notifies a supervisor within twenty-four hours of an absence due to illness or injury. If such an absence lasts five or more days, the employee must provide a medical certificate. Based on the length of time an employee has worked for Phillips 66, the STD plan provides full pay for one to twenty-six weeks and sixty percent pay for the remaining weeks in a calendar year. STD benefits are reduced by any state mandated sick pay the employee is eligible to receive.

         Under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Phillips 66 also provides employees with two paid personal holidays each year and a number of paid vacation days based on the length of time the employee has worked for the company. Employees bid for specific vacation days each fall for the subsequent calendar year. Vacation days are provided for the purpose of "rest and recreation." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 315. However, Phillips 66 permits employees to use vacation days or personal holidays instead of STD benefits when they miss work due to illness.

         When an employee takes time off to care for a sick family member, the company allows the employee to use any available personal or vacation days. Phillips 66 does not allow employees to use STD benefits to care for a family member.

         Rachelle Honeycutt and Daniel Westergreen work at a refinery operated by Phillips 66. In 2013, Honeycutt and Westergreen ("Honeycutt" or "the employees") both requested leave from work to care for sick family members. Phillips 66 approved the absences and gave the employees the option of using vacation days or taking time off without pay. The employees took time off without pay because they had already bid for vacation slots and made plans for those days.

         The employees contacted their union, United Steelworkers Local 12-590. The union demanded that the company allow employees to access STD benefits to care for sick family members as required by the FCA. Phillips 66 took the position that its STD plan is an ERISA plan to which the FCA does not apply.

         Honeycutt filed a complaint with the Department of Labor & Industries. The Department determined that Phillips 66 did not violate the FCA. The Department concluded that the FCA only reaches a disability plan if that plan is the only means by which an employee may receive paid leave for illness. Because Phillips 66's employees may use vacation days for illness, the Department ruled that the FCA's provision for reaching disability plans did not apply. The Department did not rule on whether Philips 66's STD plan was governed by ERISA.

         An administrative law judge (ALJ) affirmed the Department's decision.[2]The ALJ did not rule on whether Phillips 66's STD plan was exempt from ERISA. The director of the Department adopted the ALJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law and affirmed the ruling. The employees appealed to Whatcom County Superior Court, which also affirmed the Department's decision. Honeycutt appealed to this court.


         The Administrative Procedure Act (APA), chapter 34.05 RCW, governs judicial review of final agency decisions. RCW 34.05.070. In reviewing an agency decision, we sit in the same position as the superior court. Darkenwald v. Emp't Sec. Dep't, 183 Wn.2d 237, 244, 350 P.3d 647 (2015) (citing Verizon Nw., Inc. v. Emp't Sec. Dep't, 164 Wn.2d 909, 915, 194 P.3d 255 (2008)). We review the final agency decision and apply APA standards directly to the record that was before the agency. Id. An agency's action is invalid if the agency interpreted or applied the law erroneously. RCW 34.05.570(3)(d).

         The parties dispute the interpretation of RCW 49.12.265(5), which defines "sick leave or other paid time off' for purposes of the FCA. The meaning of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002) (citing State v. Breazeale, 144 Wn.2d 829, 837, 31 P.3d 1155 (2001)).

         Our primary duty in interpreting a statute is to "discern and implement the intent of the legislature." State v. J.P.,149 Wn.2d 444, 450, 69 P.3d 318 (2003) (citing Nat'l Elec. Contractors Ass'n v. Riveland,138 Wn.2d 9, 19, 978 P.2d 481 (1999)). We begin with the statute's plain meaning. Id. We discern plain meaning from the ordinary meaning of the language, related provisions in the statute, and the statutory scheme as a whole, Id. (citing Dep't of Ecology. 146 Wn.2d at 11). A statute is unambiguous where the plain language is susceptible to only one reasonable reading. JJL, 149 Wn.2d at 450 (citing State v. Wilson, 125 Wn.2d 212, 217, 883 P.2d 320 (1994)). We do not ...

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