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Pool v. White

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

June 5, 2017

EDWARD L. POOL, Plaintiff,
HAROLD L. WHITE, in his individual capacity, Defendant.



         BEFORE THE COURT is Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Re: Liability (ECF No. 22). Response and Reply briefs have been filed. (ECF No. 25 & 32). Plaintiff set the motion for hearing without oral argument, and neither side has requested oral argument. Accordingly, the matter was submitted on the briefs.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Edward Pool alleges he was wrongfully terminated by Defendant White in violation of his First Amendment rights. Plaintiff alleges he was employed by the Washington State Department of Transportation ("WSDOT") from August 1, 2015 to March 3, 2016. (Complt. ¶ 2.2). Defendant White was the Assistant Regional Administrator for WSDOT at all relevant times. Plaintiff alleges that while at work on February 8, 2016, he "made a comment and gesture critical" of President Obama. (Complaint ¶ 2.2). Plaintiff claims Defendant White fired him on March 3, 2016, because of this comment and gesture. Plaintiff brings his claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on the First Amendment. Defendant White admits to discharging Plaintiff, but denies the termination was in violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights.

         II. Factual Background

         In summary judgment proceedings, the facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-movant, in this case the Defendant. The following facts are set forth in a light favorable to the Defendant and key factual disputes are noted.

         Defendant Harold White is the Assistant Regional Administrator for Operations at WSDOT. Plaintiff Edward Pool was hired on or about July 30, 2015, to a "Non-Permanent, In-Training Appointment" as an Information Technology Specialist. (ECF No. 28-2, Letter of July 30, 2015). The Appointment letter informed Mr. Pool, "this appointment is anticipated to last for a period of approximately one year; however, this appointment may end at any time with one working days' notice." (Id.). Pool began work on August 3, 2015, and his immediate supervisor was Ken Heale.

         The events precipitating Pool's termination occurred on February 8, 2016. On that day, around 4:30 p.m., Pool came to the doorway of co-worker Robin Pritchard's office. (ECF No. 28-3, Pritchard Depo. p. 43). He stood in the doorway for a minute or two, and neither he or Ms. Pritchard said anything, as she was working and watching traffic monitors. (Id. at 43-45). He then made a simulated gesture of pointing a rifle at Ms. Pritchard. She asked, "what are you doing?" (Id. at 45-46). He did not respond immediately, and she then asked, "well, what are you doing?" (Id. at 46). Pool then raised the pretend gun away from Ms. Pritchard and said, "I'm going to shoot Obama." (Id.). Pool then left.

         Pritchard testified she felt "paralyzed" by the comment, could not concentrate, and could not effectively perform her job duties during the remainder of her shift, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (Id. at 53). Approximately 34-hours after this incident, at 2:50 a.m. on February 10, 2016, Pritchard sent an e-mail to Ken Heale and Mike Kress, with the subject line "Panic attacks" and which read as follows:

On Monday afternoon around 4:30 Larry was leaning on his office door and had his arms kind of pointing at me, I asked him what he was doing and it was like he raised a rifle and pointed it away from me and said he was going to kill Obama.
I've tried to stop thinking about it, but I can't sleep and I have panic attacks. I will be going to my doctor tomorrow to get some medication. I will bring in a doctors note for being under a doctors care.

(ECF No. 28-3; Pritchard Depo Ex. 2). Pritchard was then subsequently absent from work for several weeks on Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave allegedly related to anxiety.

         Mr. Heale received the email in the early morning hours of February 10, 2016, and at about 7:00 a.m. contacted Bobbi Collins Whitehead, the Human Resources Manager. (ECF No. 28-5, Heale Depo. p. 14). Heale and Whitehead arranged to meet with Plaintiff at about 2:30 p.m. on February 10, 2016, to talk to him about what was described in the email. Whitehead testified that Pool admitted making the comment about Obama, but said it was a joke and that he needed to be careful in jest about making such comments. (ECF No. 28-4, Whitehead Depo. p. 20). The workplace violence policy was discussed at the meeting. (Id. at 21). Whitehead testified the incident was "inherently disruptive" to the workplace, resulting in a situation where a fact-finding investigation was required. (Id. at 30). She further testified Pritchard's absence from the workplace was "significant". (Id.).

         The WSDOT "Violence-Free Workplace" Policy (hereafter "Policy") provides in relevant part: "Violence, threats, or intimidation of any kind is strictly prohibited and will be cause for appropriate management intervention to diffuse the incident and restore a violence-free work environment." (ECF No. 28-1; White Depo. Ex. 3). The Policy further provides "unacceptable behavior" includes verbal "threats toward a person" and "intimidation". (Id.). The Policy also defines as "unacceptable behavior" the "use or threatened use of a weapon" and "threatening, intimidating gestures." (Id.) Finally, the Policy provides that violation of the standards of ...

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