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Washington Supreme Court Rejects Judge’s Effort to Bar Public Release of Investigative Report

The Supreme Court of Washington state affirmed a lower court’s release of an investigative report concerning a hostile work environment created by Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Michael Morgan.

A Federal Way, Washington, Municipal Court employee complained to the City about a hostile work environment. City Attorney Patricia Richardson initiated an investigation and “contacted Judge Morgan to inform him, in general terms, of the complaint and investigation. Richardson also sought Judge Morgan’s cooperation because he had prohibited court employees from cooperating in a prior investigation into accusations against him.”

Richardson hired attorney Amy Stephson to conduct the investigation into allegations of Judge Morgan’s angry outburst, inappropriate gender-based and sexual comments and demeaning of colleagues and employees. Morgan attempted to terminate Stephson’s investigation, but Richardson ordered her to complete it. Morgan emailed Richardson, complaining that Stephson’s investigation was creating a hostile work environment for him.

Tacoma News Inc., doing business as The News Tribune, made a public record request for a copy of the “Stephson Report” and the City agreed to release it. Morgan moved for a protective order to prevent the release, claiming the report was exempt from the Public Records Act (PRA). The trial court disagreed and the En Banc Supreme Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court first held “that the Stephson Report was prepared, owned, used, and retained by the City; thus it qualifies as a public record and is subject to disclosure under the PRA.” The court then rejected Morgan’s contentions that the report was exempt from disclosure under the work product doctrine, attorney-client privilege and personal information exemptions.” The public interest in disclosing the report is substantial,” the court held. “As an elected official, Judge Morgan is accountable to the voters and the voters are entitled to information regarding his job performance….Judge Morgan has not shown that disclosure ‘would clearly not be in the public interest.’” See: Morgan v. City of Federal Way, 166 Wash.2.d 747, 213 P.3d 596 (Wa S.Ct 2009).

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Related legal case

Morgan v. City of Federal Way