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WA: Court Affirms Dismissal of DOC Worker's Malpractice Suit Against Attorney for Allowing Statute of Limitations to Expire

On March 10, 2016, Division III of the Washington Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed a state department of corrections (DOC) worker who had sued an attorney she thought she hired to sue DOC for workplace discrimination. The worker claimed the attorney allowed the statute of limitations to expire, barring her lawsuit against DOC, but the court held that because the underlying claim against DOC lacked merit the attorney's alleged failure to sue within the limitations period caused no harm and dismissed the case.

Tammy Slack worked as a community victim liaison assigned to DOC offices in the Tri-Cities area. In 2004, Slack's Kennewick office experienced several problems, including sewage and drainage issues, as well as power outages. Slack contended that DOC failed to replace items affected by the contaminated water and the office had a musty smell and mold began growing in the walls. Slack said she started to develop medical issues, including right shoulder impingement, sciatica, and carpal tunnel. She also claimed she began to experience migraines, nausea, and sinus infections, conditions she blamed on the condition of the building.

After informing DOC of these problems, she was allowed to work from home, visiting the office twice a week. Slack asked DOC for a new office, but they refused, claiming her office was typical of any other office, and that she could work from home and visit offices in her assigned region.

Slack filed a tort claim in 2009 seeking compensation for the medical issues she attributed to her contaminated work environment, and for violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) for DOC's failure to accommodate her medical conditions.

With the three-year statute of limitations set to expire at the end of October 2009, Slack met with an attorney to discuss filing suit against DOC. Slack paid the attorney, Lucinda Luke, $250 for the consultation, and believed she would file suit by October 30. Luke never did, later claiming there was never an agreement that she would represent Slack, and that she believed Slack's claims lacked merit.

Slack then sued Luke for legal malpractice for allowing the statute of limitations to expire. Luke moved for dismissal, arguing that because the underlying claim lacked merit, Slack suffered no harm even assuming there was an agreement to represent her.

The trial court agreed and dismissed the suit, and Slack appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, holding that Slack could not establish any damages due to the fact that her underlying WLAD claim was meritless.

"While the question of whether an employer adequately accommodated an employee normally present a factual question for the jury to decide, summary judgment is appropriate on a WLAD accommodation claim when reasonable minds could reach but one conclusion," the court wrote. "There is no indication in the record that working from home was no longer available to Ms. Slack or that it failed to accommodate her conditions. Rather, it appears simply that she preferred another work option, but DOC would not give it to her. However, she does not have the right to her preferred accommodation."

The appellate court found that on this record, DOC did accommodate Slack by allowing her to work from home, and that her WLAD claims would not have survived summary judgment even if filed in time. "Accordingly, we agree with the trial court that summary judgment was proper in this case." See Slack v. Luke, No. 32921-6—III (C.A. Div. 3 WA), March 10, 2016.

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Related legal case

Slack v. Luke