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Spokane case to test state’s termination law

Do Washington laws protect a worker from retaliation if he reports seeing a supervisor under the influence of alcohol or driving while intoxicated?

The state Supreme Court will focus on that issue next week when it hears arguments in a Spokane worker’s lawsuit raising the issue of whistle-blower protection when alcohol use is reported in the workplace.

Matthew Cudney, 37, worked for the Spokane office of Alsco, Inc., a company that provides linens, uniforms and cleaning supplies. Cudney was fired in the summer 2008 after telling a number of co-workers, including human resources manager Doug Meyers and assistant branch manager Marty Siebe, that the Spokane branch manager was intoxicated at work and then drove off in a company car. The branch manager, John Bartich, is still in charge of the Spokane Alsco office.

“This is a case of first impression, in asking, can a person who reports seeing another worker drinking and then driving a company car be fired, or not, for that reason?” said Keller Allen, a Spokane attorney representing Cudney.

Attorneys for Alsco have denied Cudney was fired for making the comments.

Said Allen, “Because (that protection for whistle-blowing) isn’t specifically stated in the criminal statutes, the court in this case will have to decide: Is this important enough that we should imply that workers are protected from being fired if they bring up drinking in the workplace?”

Allen said Cudney’’s case is parallel to the 1996 Washington Supreme Court case involving a Spokane worker, Kevin Gardner, who was fired by his company, Loomis Armored Inc. Gardner broke company rules when he left the armored car near a downtown Spokane bank to help a bank teller threatened by a knife-wielding robber.

The court ruled Gardner was wrongly fired and a “good Samaritan” public policy protects workers if they break a rule but help someone in need.

But Alsco’s Spokane attorney, Bryce Wilcox, said Cudney is not like the Gardner case. In particular he argues that there is no “public policy” for reporting drinking in the workplace. Wilcox argues, in court documents, that Cudney could have used the state’s Labor and Industries regulations or other state laws to remedy his problem.

After losing his job, Cudney filed a lawsuit in 2008 seeking damages for wrongful discharge. He continues working for another Spokane commercial services firm.

His case, in federal District Court, was halted last year when the judge decided the key issue of public policy workplace protection should be addressed by the state Supreme Court.

During Monday’s oral arguments, the court will give each side 20 minutes to summarize their case. A decision is expected later this year.