By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
What so far has proven to be a long ordeal for two men originally wanting only to be provided with a floral arrangement for this upcoming wedding, and also for florist Barronelle Stutzman who asserts her right to religious freedom by denying this service, has now come to another milestone in Washington.
A unanimous ruling by the Washington Supreme Court, the court denied Stutzman and her business, Arlene’s Flowers, INC’s assertions, ruling:
“…Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” and therefore held that “the conduct for which Stutzman was cited and fined in this case-refusing her commercially marketed wedding floral services to Ingersoll and Freed because theirs would be a same-sex wedding-constitutes sexual orientation discrimination under the WLAD.” (Washington Law Against Discrimination)
We previously wrote HERE and HERE of Richland, Washington Florist Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, who caused a row when she refused to provide her floral services for a gay wedding. Now, a Benton County Superior Court Judge ruled that she violated the state’s consumer protection act that bars discrimination against a protected class.
The legal action was brought by customer Robert Ingersoll and the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
Judge Alex Ekstom rejected Baronelle’s arguments that her actions were protected by free speech and religious freedom guarantees stating in part:
“For over 135 years, the Supreme Court has held that laws may prohibit religiously motivated action, as opposed to belief. The Courts have confirmed the power of the Legislative Branch to prohibit conduct it deems discriminatory, even where the motivation for that conduct is grounded in religious belief.”
Robert had been a customer of Arlene’s Flowers for several years prior to the incident in question. Barronelle was aware that he was gay and had a partner Curt Freed for whom he purchased flowers. When Washington statutorily provided for gay marriage in 2012, Robert asked Barronelle to make the wedding arrangement for him. But, Barronelle declined, putting her hand upon Robert’s and stating that “because of [her] relationship with Jesus Christ”, she would not be able to do so—according to her statement in a deposition.
In court filings the couple asserted emotional damaging fallout resulting from the denial of the floral services and that it allegedly brought unintended consequences that effectively crashed their original wedding plans after word travelled virulently on social media.
…Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, Freed posted a status update on his personal Facebook feed regarding Stutzman’s refusal to sell him wedding flowers. The update observed, without specifically naming Arlene’s Flowers, that the couple’s “favorite Richland Lee Boulevard flower shop” had declined to provide flowers for their wedding on religious grounds, and noted that Freed felt “so deeply offended that apparently our business is no longer good business,” because “[his] loved one [did not fit] within their personal beliefs.” This message was apparently widely circulated, though Ingersoll testified that their Facebook settings were such that the message was “only intended for our friends and family.” Eventually, the story drew the attention of numerous media outlets.
As a result of the “emotional toll” Stutzman’s refusal took on Freed and Ingersoll, they “lost enthusiasm for a large ceremony” as initially imagined.In fact, the two “stopped planning for a wedding in September 2013 because [they] feared being denied service by other wedding vendors.” The couple also feared that in light of increasing public attention-some of which caused them to be concerned for their own safety-as well as then-ongoing litigation, a larger wedding might require a security presence or attract protesters, such as the Westboro Baptist group.
So they were married on July 21, 2013, in a modest ceremony at their home. There were 11 people in attendance. For the occasion, Freed and Ingersoll purchased one bouquet of flowers from a different florist and boutonnieres from their friend. When word of this story got out in the media, a handful of florists offered to provide their wedding flowers free of charge.
Stutzman also received a great deal of attention from the publicity surrounding this case, including threats to her business and other unkind messages.
Curt and Robert sued. They cited the Washington Consumer Protection Act and its laws against discrimination. They supported by the Washington Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the State Attorney General who welcomed the Superior Court ruling.
Under the Washington Consumer Protection Act, Arlene’s Flowers is subject to a sanction of One Thousand Dollars for failing to comply with the act.
An interesting aspect of Stutzman’s defense was that she could not be personally liable for the actions–the refusal to perform floral services–because she was shielded by the Corporate Veil pursuant to the incorporation of Arlene’s flowers. Yet the Court made it quite clear as to how liability for violations of the WLAD and the Consumer Protection Act may fall upon corporate officers and make their corporation’s liability their own; something likely to deter similar forms of discrimination:
Stutzman argues that she cannot be personally liable for violating the CPA [Consumer Protection Act] because (1) she kept her affairs separate from Arlene’s Flowers’ and (2) no
Washington court has ever applied the “responsible-corporate-officer doctrine” outside the fraud context. Br. of Appellants at 49 (citing Grayson v. Nordic Constr. Co., 92 Wn.2d 548, 552-53, 599 P.2d 1271 (1979); One Pac. Towers Homeowners’ Ass ‘n v. HAL Real Estate Invs., Inc., 108 Wn. App. 330, 347-48, 30 P.3d 504 (2001), aff’d in part and rev ‘din part, 148 Wn.2d 319, 61 PJd 1094 (2002)).
The authority Stutzman cites does not support this argument. In Grayson, this court held that the defendant could be personally liable for his company’s CPA violation even though there were no grounds for piercing the corporate veil. 92 Wn.2d at 553-54. This directly contradicts Stutzman’s theory that she cannot be personally liable under the CPA unless she commingled her finances with Arlene’s Flowers’. And the other case, One Pac. Towers, 108 Wn. App. 330, does not address a CPA claim.
On the other hand, there is long-standing precedent in Washington holding that individuals may be personally liable for a CPA violation if they “participate in the wrongful conduct, or with knowledge approve of the conduct.” State v. Ralph Williams’ N. W. Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 87 Wn.2d 298, 322, 553 P.2d 423 ( 197 6). Liability for such participation or approval does not depend on piercing the corporate veil. ld. This is consistent with the CPA’s plain language, which authorizes the attorney general to bring an action against “against any person to restrain and prevent the doing of any act herein prohibited or declared to be unlawful,” RCW 19.86.080(1) (emphasis added), and which defines “person” to include “where applicable, natural persons,” as well as corporate entities, RCW 19.86.010(1).
Such individual liability does not constitute an application of, or expansion of, the responsible corporate officer doctrine. That doctrine expands liability from a corporation to an individual officer who would not otherwise be liable “where the officer stands ‘in responsible relation to a public danger.'” Dep’t of Ecology v. Lundgren, 94 Wn. App. 236, 243, 971 P.2d 948 (1999) (quoting United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277,281, 64 S. Ct. 134, 88 L. Ed. 48 (1943)). Here, the trial
court did not find Stutzman (the individual) vicariously or secondarily liable based on conduct of Arlene’s Flowers (the corporation). It found her liable because of acts that she herself committed.
The complete Opinion may be read HERE.
From a strictly business point of view I fully do not understand why a person would throw away good business. Gay marriage then was only recently enacted in several states and a new market for floral arranging is certain to develop. These couples could have referred additional business. And on the other hand this is another example of pettiness mushrooming into a great ordeal costing thousands of times more in terms of money and unease for all concerned, when alternatively Stutzman could have simply made the flower arrangement, made money form the sale, and have been done with it. Now, from her point of view she is worse off. The right she believed she had to deny gay couples to have services has now been destroyed and the prohibition for others has been cast in stone statewide.
Regardless of which side someone is on for this issue, a lesson should be learned that performing with reckless legal ambition and egotism often leads to laws and mandates completely disadvantageous to their cause. But then again there is the opposite side who is often benefited. In this case, Stutzman helped the civil rights movement for gay individuals quite nicely.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.