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Henneman v. Kitsap County

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

July 24, 2018



          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Kitsap County's Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #16]. Plaintiff Dennis Henneman was employed as a Corrections Officer and Background Investigator by Kitsap County. The job duties caused Henneman substantial stress and he voluntarily resigned in January 2015. Henneman soon had misgivings about his decision to resign, but Kitsap County declined to reinstate him. Henneman filed the present lawsuit alleging Kitsap County discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Dkt. 1-3. Kitsap County moves for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that Henneman voluntarily resigned from his position, that the County did not take any adverse employment action, and that the County was under no obligation to reinstate Henneman once his resignation was accepted. Henneman contends that he tendered his resignation during a depressive episode and that there are disputed issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment on his claims. Because the Court would not be aided by oral argument, it decides the motion on the parties' written submissions.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Dennis Henneman began working as a Corrections Officer for Kitsap County in 1990. In April 2011, Henneman was selected for a specialty position as a Background Investigator, performing background checks on individuals who applied for employment with the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office. Dkt. 21 at 5. Henneman struggled with the job for various reasons, and in October 2014, Henneman indicated to co-worker Shawn Buzzell that he was experiencing work-related stress and feeling depressed. While discussing his depression, Henneman made reference to a colleague who had recently committed suicide. Dkt. 19 at 7; Dkt. 27 at 2. Buzzell, who was also the Vice President of the Correctional Officers Guild, was concerned enough by Henneman's comments that he informed his supervisor. Lieutenant Roxane Payne followed up with Henneman, who denied being suicidal, but became emotional during the conversation. Dkt. 19 at 9.

         Henneman subsequently met with John Perona, the County's on-duty mental health professional. Dkt. 29. Henneman indicated that he was under an intense amount of stress related to both his work and his personal life. Id. at 3-4. Henneman told Perona that he was “burned out” and wished to return to his old job as a “pod officer.” Id. Perona opined that Henneman was suffering from a depressive disorder and recommended that Henneman be transferred off of background investigations. Perona also recommended that Henneman follow up with his personal physician to address his depression. Id. at 4.

         After consulting with Perona and Corrections Chief Ned Newlin, Lt. Payne informed Henneman that he would be relieved from his position as a background investigator and would return to a traditional “operations” assignment. Dkt. 19 at 10; Dkt. 27 at 3. Payne indicated that before Henneman could resume working, he needed a note from his physician clearing him to return to work. Id.

         Henneman subsequently requested and took a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) from October 6, 2014 through December 24, 2014. Dkt. 20. Henneman and his health care provider requested an extension of his FMLA leave to January 2, 2015, and that he be assigned to light duty upon his return. Both requests were approved and Henneman returned to a light duty assignment in the control room at the Kitsap County jail on January 2.

         Henneman worked without incident upon his return to light duty but continued to struggle emotionally. Dkt. 16 at 4; Dkt. 25 at 7. Henneman drafted a resignation letter at work after his first week back. Dkt. 17 at 6. Henneman also had a conversation with a fellow corrections officer about putting in his retirement notice. Dkt. 18 at 11. On January 13, 2015, Henneman met with Chief Newlin and Lieutenant Genie Elton at the start of his shift to inform them of his decision to retire. Later that afternoon, Henneman met with Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson and formally submitted his letter of resignation. Dkt. 27 at 7. The letter is straightforward:

This is my Notice of Resignation (retirement) with my final day of work being 27, January 2015.
At this time I am retiring from Law Enforcement but will not be drawing my retirement account. I do plan to continue working in a different line of work.
I thank you for the opportunity you have given me to be employed as a Corrections Officer for the people of Kitsap County.
At this time I wish that my Resignation not be disseminated to my fellow officers.
Thank you, [signed]
Dennis Henneman
KCSO 1447

         Dkt. 17 at 8. Sheriff Simpson accepted Henneman's resignation. Id. at 14.

         Two days later, Correctional Officers Guild President Ken Watkins emailed Sheriff Simpson indicating that Henneman wished to rescind his resignation and requested a meeting to discuss the matter. On January 21, 2015, Henneman followed up with a letter to Simpson formally requesting to rescind his resignation. Dkt. 17 at 12. The letter indicated that after additional consideration and discussion with his family, Henneman had decided it was imprudent to retire. Id. Simpson met with Henneman and Watkins the next day. Simpson memorialized the meeting in a letter and explained that he would discuss Henneman's request for reinstatement with Chief Newlin, but clarifying that Henneman should proceed with the expectation that his last day would be January 27. On January 26, Henneman sent a letter to Simpson “request[ing] that you reinstate my employment, as a reasonable accommodation for my disability.” Dkt. 17 at 17. On February 4, 2015, Chief Newlin sent a letter to Henneman denying his request for reinstatement. “We respected your decision to resign, as you presented your decision as something you had given considerable thought to and had even developed plans for your future employment. . . . After careful consideration of your request for reinstatement, I have determined that this course of action is not in the best interest of the Sheriff's Office[.]” Dkt. 21 at 9-10.

         After filing a grievance, Henneman filed the present lawsuit in Superior Court. Kitsap County timely removed the case invoking this Court's federal question jurisdiction. Dkt. 1.


         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In determining whether an issue of fact exists, the Court must view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986); Bagdadi v. Nazar, 84 F.3d 1194, 1197 (9th Cir. 1996). A genuine issue of material fact exists where there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable factfinder to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The inquiry is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52. The moving party bears the initial burden of showing that there is no evidence which supports an element essential to the nonmovant's claim. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the movant has met this burden, the nonmoving party then must show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. If the nonmoving party fails to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact, “the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24. “The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48.


         Henneman alleges that Kitsap County violated the WLAD and the ADA by discriminating and retaliating against him based on his mental health issues in 2014 and 2015.[2]Specifically, Henneman alleges Kitsap County subjected him to disparate treatment, failed to accommodate his disability or engage in the interactive process, and ultimately retaliated against him by terminating his employment. Dkt. 1-3 at 3-6. Kitsap County argues that it did not take any adverse employment actions against Henneman and contends that “an employer does not violate discrimination laws for not reinstating ...

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