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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Former Gonzaga employee who complained about lack of padding on basketball court can't sue for wrongful termination, court rules

By John Severance | Oct 10, 2017

Wrongful term 08

SPOKANE, Wash. (Legal Newsline) – The dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was wrongfully terminated by Gonzaga University was upheld by the Washington Court of Appeals in an opinion that was released Sept. 7.

Judge George Fearing said in the opinion, "Undisputed facts establish that Gonzaga University possessed an overriding justification to terminate (David) Martin's employment."

The court's opinion states that David Martin filed the lawsuit against Gonzaga alleging that the university terminated his employment in in 2012 in violation of public policy for raising concerns about the fact there was no wall padding protecting players on the basketball court.

In his suit, Martin alleged Gonzaga, which is located in Spokane and whose men's basketball team lost the NCAA championship in April 71-65 to the University of North Carolina, declined to provide him with a complete copy of his personnel file following his dismissal.

Fearing then addressed the personnel file issue.

"We vacate and remand for further proceedings the summary judgment order dismissing Martin's claim that Gonzaga University failed to produce all of his personnel file on his request," Fearing wrote.

Gonzaga school officials applauded the decision.

"The university is pleased with the Court of Appeals decision upholding the termination," Mary Joan Hahn, the school’s director for community and public relations, told Legal Newsline.

An email inquiry to Martin's counsel of record, Julie Watts, went unanswered.

Another judge on the panel had this to say about the personnel file issue:

"I agree with both the lead and concurring opinions that summary judgment was properly granted to Gonzaga University. However, I disagree with the decision of my colleagues to remand the personnel file issue to superior court. That claim is not yet justiciable," Judge Kevin Korsmo wrote.

The opinion states that Martin was hired in 2008 to be the assistant director at the fitness center on the Gonzaga campus. A number of students had been injured playing basketball at the fitness center, so the idea was brought up by Martin to install padding at both ends of the court on the walls. 

Martin alleges in his suit he had submitted a number of proposals that were submitted to various people in the athletic administration and he was continually told to follow the chain of command.

Martin, though, requested a meeting with school president Thayne McCulloh and sent an email and called his executive assistant Julia Bjordahl, who then told Martin to follow the chain of command within the athletic department, according to the opinion.

The opinion states that Bjordahl replied to the March 6, 2012, email by reiterating to Martin the policy of vetting the proposal with the next individual in the chain of command, whom Bjordahl believed to be Athletics Director Mike Roth, who forwarded the email to Heather Murray, Dan Berryman in the human resources department and Chris Standiford, a senior associate athletic director.

The next day, a student suffered a concussion and required stitches after running into the wall at the basketball court. And the day after that, Gonzaga fired Martin, the opinion states.

According to court documents, the termination letter stated that Martin had failed to correct past performance issues and that he was also fired for insubordination. But one of the reasons was the belief that Martin provided information to the school newspaper about the injuries at the fitness center.

Martin then filed his suit. And in his testimony, Martin said "the only way to address the safety concerns for the students was to make sure that my [his] proposal and insistence that pads be installed was to bring it to the top."

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State of Washington Court of Appeals