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Martin v. Gonzaga University

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

September 7, 2017

DAVID MARTIN, a single person, Appellant,
v.
GONZAGA UNIVERSITY, Respondent, CHRIS STANDIFORD AND "JANE DOE" STANDIFORD, a marital community, Defendants.

          Fearing, CJ.

         David Martin sues his former employer, Gonzaga University, for discharge in employment in violation of public policy and for a violation of a statute allowing an employee access to his personnel file. We affirm a summary judgment dismissal of the wrongful discharge claim. Martin fails to present evidence to support the fourth element of the claim, that element being the absence of an overriding justification for Gonzaga University to fire Martin. The undisputed facts, including Martin's own words, establish insubordination. We reverse the summary judgment dismissal of Martin's claim that the university denied him access to his personnel file on the ground that Gonzaga University failed to provide testimony that it produced all of the file to Martin.

         Few decisions delineate the nature of the overriding justification element of the wrongful discharge in violation of public policy cause of action. We devote pages to define and demarcate the element.

         FACTS

         This lawsuit arises from the employment of David Martin at Gonzaga University's Rudolf Fitness Center (RFC). Because the trial court granted Gonzaga University's summary judgment motion, we recite the facts in a light most favorable to David Martin, although we also include some of the university's evidence.

         Spokane's Jesuit school, Gonzaga University, opened the Rudolf Fitness Center in 2003 for use by students, faculty, and staff. A basketball fieldhouse and a pool, among other facilities, occupy the fitness center. During the summer months, the university rents the fitness center to other organizations such as youth camps and leagues. The university's Athletics Department oversees the fitness center.

         At unknown dates before Gonzaga University's hire of David Martin in 2008, university students sustained injuries when playing basketball and striking bare concrete walls behind the basketball hoops in the Rudolf Fitness Center. Injuries included concussions, head trauma, broken bones, dislocated shoulders, and lacerations. No protective padding covered the walls. Basketball courts at other Gonzaga University facilities included padding on the walls.

         Beginning in 2004, Gonzaga University Athletics Department staff discussed affixing prophylactic padding to the basketball court walls at the Rudolf Fitness Center. No code requirement or National Collegiate Athletic Association regulation requires the use of pads. Nevertheless, in 2004, Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford instructed Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez to hire a risk management consultant to assess the need for pads along the walls of the basketball courts. The Athletics Department later declined to follow the consultant's recommendation to install pads. The university then estimated the cost of the padding as $30, 000.

         During a deposition in this lawsuit, Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez testified that he "believed" that Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford rendered the 2004 decision rejecting installation of protective pads. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 66. In 2007, Hernandez again engaged a consultant to assess the need for safeguarding pads and the costs of the pads. After the second assessment, Hernandez recommended to his supervisor, Assistant Athletics Director Joel Morgan, that Gonzaga University install the pads. The Athletics Department again declined to install the recommended pads. Hernandez does not know whether Morgan or Standiford made the decision. Morgan recalled no such recommendation.

         Gonzaga University hired plaintiff David Martin on January 2, 2008, to work as an assistant director of the Rudolf Fitness Center. In addition to his wages, Martin received other benefits, including health insurance and free tuition. Martin utilized his tuition benefit and enrolled in Gonzaga's master's degree program for sports administration.

         When David Martin gained employment at the Rudolf Fitness Center, the fitness center's employees included Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez, Associate Director Shelly Radtke, and Assistant Directors Andrew Main and Kerri Conger. Hernandez also enjoyed the title of University assistant athletics director. The university's Athletics Department's chain of command encompassed the Rudolf Fitness Center's employees. We have already mentioned some of the supervisor's names and titles. The fitness center's associate and assistant directors initially reported to the center's Assistant Athletics Director Hernandez. Later, Associate Director Shelly Radtke directly supervised David Martin. Hernandez reported to Gonzaga University Assistant Athletics Director Joel Morgan. Morgan reported to university Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford. Standiford reported to Mike Roth, director of Athletics.

         After David Martin's hire, Gonzaga University students continued to sustain injuries while playing basketball in the Rudolf Fitness Center and striking concrete walls while running full speed. For several years, David Martin requested that Gonzaga University install protective padding on the fieldhouse walls behind the basketball hoops, although we lack evidence as to the number of times and the dates of the requests. Martin recalled one request during his second year of employment after a student sustained serious injuries while playing basketball. Martin forwarded a concern to his supervisor, Jose Hernandez, and the pair discussed the need to install padding to help minimize the risk of injuries. Martin deemed that Gonzaga University held a legal obligation to maintain a safe environment for students and employees. He worried about blood and other bodily fluids spilled during accidents could create pathogen hazards. In response to Martin's expression of concern, Fitness Center Assistant Athletics Director Hernandez informed Martin that requests for protective padding could only be made once a year at the budget meeting.

         In a deposition, Jose Hernandez confirmed that David Martin spoke to him about installing pads. According to Hernandez, Martin repeatedly and passionately spoke about the need for wall padding.

         According to David Martin, before he raised this safety concern to Jose Hernandez, he received a raise for good work performance. Thereafter, Martin received no pay raises despite receiving complimentary performance evaluations. David Martin does not present records to support these assertions.

         During the employment of David Martin, other Rudolf Fitness Center employees expressed concerns about the lack of protective wall padding in the basketball courts. According to Associate Director Shelly Radtke and Assistant Director Andrew Main, all Athletics Department staff discussed the lack of padding on the walls of the Rudolf Fitness Center. Neither Radtke nor Main identified a supervisor to whom either raised a safety concern about the walls.

         One or more supervisors of David Martin periodically reviewed his job performance. Martin testifies that supervisors never advised him of any work performance deficiencies. Records show, however, that Martin received below average ratings for his interpersonal skills, problem solving, professional development, and leadership responsibilities on his April 28, 2011 performance review. The review noted that Martin's overall performance "was below the quality and standard that he is capable of." CP at 128. The review further read:

[Martin's] inconsistent performance kept him from meeting the basic job requirements. Throughout the academic year, at times he would displayed [sic] great work ethics and at other times he would not. This up and down behavior and conduct was a surprise and uncharacteristic of him.

CP at 128. In addition, the review commented that Martin did an excellent job developing and implementing a training program for lifeguards. No supervisor signed the April 2011 performance review.

         Rudolf Fitness Center Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez and David Martin exchanged e-mails following the April 28, 2011 performance review. In one e-mail, Hernandez posed two questions to Martin. Hernandez asked Martin how the latter could improve his performance to advance the interests of the fitness center. The second question asked Martin how other Rudolf Fitness Center staff needed to change or improve. Martin's response focused on his desire to develop a pool program, his dissatisfaction with resistance to change from others, and a lack of teamwork among staff. Martin did not mention any student safety concerns related to the lack of protective padding in the basketball courts.

         In a document dated August 16, 2011, an anonymous author, perhaps Jose Hernandez, summarized in writing David Martin's April 2011 review. The document lacks a header. The author identified four deficiencies in Martin's work performance and correlating expectations and goals. The four highlighted deficits were a lack of interpersonal and professional communication skills with coworkers, a lack of teamwork, abrasive and insensitive written communications, and a neglect of job responsibilities.

         After David Martin's April 28, 2011 performance review, Rudolf Fitness Center Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez counseled Martin daily about his job performance, his need to follow protocol, and his interpersonal skills. According to Hernandez,

[Martin] was a young man just removed from college at the time who was a challenge to work with. Mr. Martin did not like structure and felt like he could get the job done his own way. . . . Mr. Martin was very arrogant and simply did not want to get along with people.

         CP at 120. Hernandez eventually consulted with Gonzaga University's Human Resources Office regarding Martin's job performance issues. Heather Murray, associate director of human resources, testified in a declaration that Hernandez continually coached Martin to take direction and follow protocol. Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford observed that David Martin resented Jose Hernandez being Martin's supervisor.

         According to Rudolf Fitness Center Associate Director Shelly Radtke, who supervised David Martin, Martin lacked tact with employees and students and yelled at her on several occasions. Assistant Director Andrew Main testified that Martin lacked interpersonal skills. Main testified that Martin "liked to do things his own way, even if there were procedures in place that he was supposed to follow." CP at 170. Martin acknowledged he experienced difficulty with Rudolf Fitness Center Assistant Director Kerri Conger because of attitudinal differences.

         As part of David Martin's thesis project for his masters' program, Martin wrote a proposal to continue use of the Rudolf Fitness Center pool and use funds raised from enjoyment of the pool to purchase protective wall padding for the basketball courts. We assume that the Gonzaga University administration considered closing the pool, but no direct evidence confirms such. Martin wished the university to maintain a pool on campus for students. The record does not include Martin's written proposal.

         David Martin submitted his pool and padding proposal to Rudolf Fitness Center Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez and asked if he could submit the proposal to Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford. Standiford oversaw the fitness center budget. According to Martin, Hernandez granted him permission. During discovery, Hernandez denied that he granted Martin permission to share his proposal with Standiford. Hernandez testified that "[h]e cannot stop [David Martin] from going over there [to Standiford] and talking to our associate athletics director, but that is not the proper procedure, proper way to do it." CP at 75.

         On February 29, 2012, David Martin sent his pool and padding proposal to Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford through an e-mail entitled "Future Pool Proposal." CP at 115. Martin requested a meeting with Standiford to discuss "a very specific plan, along with other ideas, on how to generate revenue to keep the pool operational and buy time for the future." CP at 115. Martin's cover e-mail did not mention student safety concerns resulting from the lack of protective padding in the basketball courts. Standiford responded to Martin on February 29:

Unfortunately my schedule will not allow for a meeting before my departure tomorrow. It is more organizationally appropriate for you to provide Jose [Hernandez] with the proposal for consideration. If you already done this, and Jose supports the proposal, I would suggest he meet with Joel [Morgan] for further consideration and deliberation.
I have asked Joel, and by extension Jose, that we do an analysis and program[m]atic review that demonstrates the relative vitality and necessity of the aquatic component as part of the Rudolf Fitness Center. Hopefully your work helps expedite that project as it is the most time sensitive. The response to that question is the primary focus and sole request at this time. The answer will lead to greater discussion and instruct us to what parameters and goals we can construct for that discussion and in response to Plant's concerns about the viability of further operation of the pool complex.
Thanks for your work to date and that which still lies ahead.

CP at 114. Martin replied after work hours:

I am aware that this is a time sensitive matter. In the politest possible way . . . according to our organizational layout in the Policies and Procedures Manual, pg. 6, there is no such line of communication or organization hierarchy established for the RFC [Rudolf Fitness Center] staff to follow. I have Jose's consent in this matter and I understand that you are an extremely busy individual, I wouldn't be asking for your time if I didn't plan on using it to the fullest. Imagine this as a "golden ticket" idea. Something that I don't want others corrupting or taking credit for. I would ask that you please meet with me and hear my thoughts on this matter. If it needs to wait until after you return, then so be it, but I have worked hard on this and would appreciate your audience, and your audience alone. CP at 114 (alteration in original). Standiford concluded that Martin, with this latest message, sought to generate additional income for himself contrary to Gonzaga University's mission. Following the Leap Day e-mail exchange, Chris Standiford contacted Jose Hernandez and Joel Morgan and asked them to contact human resources regarding David Martin.

         According to David Martin, Chris Standiford directed him to forward the thesis proposal to Jose Hernandez for Hernandez to make the presentation in order to kill the proposal through administrative inaction. Hernandez lacked the knowledge and ability to make the presentation.

         Rudolf Fitness Center Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez scheduled a meeting for the following day, March 1, 2012, among Assistant Athletics Director Joel Morgan, David Martin, and Hernandez. Hernandez arranged the meeting in order to express disappointment to Martin for his disobeying the direction of Chris Standiford and to deliver Martin a letter of expectation. When Hernandez informed Martin of the meeting, Martin responded: '"You cannot make me go.'" CP at 121. Hernandez advised Martin to attend because his employment standing would otherwise worsen.

         David Martin attended the March 1 meeting. Martin argued and interrupted Jose Hernandez throughout the meeting. Martin repeatedly asked why his e-mail to Chris Standiford was inappropriate. Hernandez told Martin that Martin disregarded a direct order from Standiford when Standiford instructed Martin to submit his proposal to Hernandez and Morgan. Hernandez read to Martin a prepared statement. Joel Morgan demanded that Martin release his proposal to him, but Martin refused.

         At the conclusion of the March 1 meeting, Jose Hernandez and Joel Morgan told David Martin that he would receive a letter of expectation and the two would evaluate his performance over the next week. Martin asked to leave the meeting. After the meeting concluded, Associate Director of Human Resources Heather Murray, who did not attend the meeting, assumed the responsibility for drafting the letter of expectation.

         Within ten minutes after departing the March 1 meeting, David Martin located Rudolf Fitness Center Associate Director Shelly Radtke and requested to leave work early. According to Radtke, Martin approached her "hotter than a pistol" and yelled:

"I need you to grant me permission to leave.... I can't be here. I have to get out of here and you need to document this."

         CP at 163. Martin, who was scheduled to close the Rudolf Fitness Center that night, wished Fitness Center Assistant Director Andrew Main to substitute for him. Martin told Main that he was "[n]ot in a good state of mind." Main offered to close the facility for him. CP at 170. Martin did not seek permission from Jose Hernandez to leave work early.

         On March 1, Shelly Radtke texted Jose Hernandez to notify him that David Martin asked to leave early and, in an effort to avoid confrontation, she agreed. After receiving the text, Hernandez called Radtke, who relayed that a visibly upset Martin had already left the Rudolf Fitness Center. Hernandez and Morgan went to the fitness center to speak with Main. Main told them that Martin said: "Joel is upset I went over his head and Jose is a push over." CP at 216. Consequently, Morgan consulted with Heather Murray concerning Martin's actions during and after the meeting. Morgan and Murray agreed that Martin should be placed on administrative leave until further notice. According to Hernandez, the university placed Martin on administrative leave because he abandoned his duties and advised Shelly Radtke to tell Hernandez of his early absence.

         On March 2, 2012, Jose Hernandez notified David Martin that Gonzaga University placed him on paid administrative leave. Hernandez instructed Martin that the terms of his leave forbad him to contact anyone at Gonzaga University except human resources staff and Hernandez.

         David Martin states that, before his termination from employment, he was wrongfully accused of leaking information to The Gonzaga Bulletin, a Gonzaga University student publication. Martin does not identify the accuser or the date of the accusation. Martin attached, to his declaration, a copy of a May 10, 2012 Gonzaga Bulletin article, entitled "Gym safety questioned as employee fired." CP at 38-39. We wonder if the attachment contains the entire article. Our copy of the article does not mention the dismissal of Martin or anyone else from employment. The article quotes "Martin" without mentioning his first name or position with the fieldhouse. CP at 39. The article also mentions Martin's "proposal, " but does not identify the proposal. CP at 39. The article reads, in part:

According to Martin, the issue of pads is brought up once a year at a meeting with facilities. He says he has been told multiple times that the gym meets requirements and code.
Martin said that in writing his proposal he was not so much worried about the threat of a lawsuit as he was about the safety of the clients using the facilities at the RFC.

         CP at 39.

         In an important passage in Jose Hernandez's deposition, the following colloquy occurred:

Q. Did you ever share with Mr. Standiford that you believed that Mr. Martin was leaking information about the pads with a reporter with The Bulletin, the student publication?
A. I don't believe saying that.
Q. Did you ever believe that Mr. Martin was responsible for sharing information that led to the articles shown in Exhibit 1 ?
A. I don't. . . I'm not in a position to just say that he did.
Q. I'm not asking you whether you're in the position. Did you personally believe that Mr. Martin was sharing information with a reporter from The Bulletin?
A. Not necessarily.
Q. What do you mean "not necessarily?"
A. That I don't believe that.
Q. Did you have any thoughts that he might have shared this information with The Bulletin and the reporter?
A. Well, I can tell you this: One of the reporters told me that, in a group, he overheard Mr. Martin talking about it.
Q. So did that cause you to believe that maybe Mr. Martin was the person who was sharing information with the reporter?
A. Not necessarily.
Q. Did you ever share this conversation with Mr. Standiford or talk to him about Mr. Martin being the person giving ...

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