I have been an attorney for almost ten years and have done my fair share of trial preparation and helping attorneys pick a jury. I also take my civic duty seriously and report for jury duty when called. I have noticed that a high percentage of those called have tried to excuse themselves for hardship because they cannot afford to miss work to sit on a jury. Those that usually can sit on a jury are those who are retired and living on a fixed income or those who have a job that allows them to serve on a jury without missing work (i.e.: government employees).
While people can claim financial difficulty as a hardship, it does have a tendency to prevent those with a lower income from serving on a jury. But, is it discrimination when someone of a lower economic status cannot be seated on a jury? Or is the problem not because of the person’s economic status, but is it because the service payments related to jury service has failed to keep up with inflation? Regardless of the reason, does the exclusion of those with lower economic status violate wage and hour laws for failing to pay a minimum wage?
Nicole Bednarczyk, et al v. King County (Washington State Court of Appeals Case No. 51823-6-II)
Nicole Bednarczyk and Catherine Selin (Appellants) were summoned for jury duty in King County, Washington. Selin served 11 days of jury duty. Bednarcyzk obtained a letter from her employer stating she would not be able to work or nor would she be paid during her jury service, thus creating a hardship for Bednarczyk and her employer. Ms. Bednarczyk requested an economic hardship excusal from the court, which the court denied. Selin and Bednarczyk filed a complaint against King County stating the jury pay excluded jurors from service due to economic status and jurors were entitled to be paid minimum wage for their service. Selin and Bednarczyk also alleged King County was violating wage and hour laws by failing to pay jurors a minimum wage.
King County filed a motion for summary judgment arguing Appellants did not have standing for their impact and wage claims. The court granted King County’s motion for summary judgment and Appellants’ disparate impact and wage claims were dismissed. The court did not address King County’s argument pertaining to Appellant’s standing to bring their actions. Appellants then appealed.
What is a Motion for Summary Judgment?
A Motion for Summary Judgment is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party without a full trial. The party moving (applying) for summary judgment is attempting to avoid the time and expense of a trial when, in the moving party’s view, the outcome is obvious. Typically, the argument is when all the evidence likely to be put forward is such that no reasonable factfinder could disagree with the moving party, summary judgment is appropriate. Sometimes this will occur when there is no real dispute as to what happened, but it also frequently occurs when there is a nominal dispute but the non-moving party cannot produce enough evidence to support its position.
A party may also move for summary judgment in order to eliminate the risk of losing at trial by demonstrating to the judge, via sworn statements and documentary evidence, that there are no material factual issues remaining to be tried. If there is nothing for the factfinder to decide, then the moving party asks rhetorically, why have a trial? The moving party will also attempt to persuade the court that the undisputed material facts require judgment to be entered in its favor. In many jurisdictions, a party moving for summary judgment takes the risk that, although the judge may agree there are no material issues of fact remaining for trial, the judge may also find it is the non-moving party who is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
As to Appellants’ disparate impact claim, the Appellate Court ruled that the Appellants could not bring a disparate impact claim under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”) because WLAD did not include economic status as a protected class for the purposes of WLAD claims. WLAD only protects the “right to be free from discrimination because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation or the presence of any sensory, mental or physical disability or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.” (RCW 49.60.030(1)).
Nonetheless, disparate impact claims can be brought under the equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution and Article I, Section 12 of the Washington Constitution. However, because Appellants did not plead their claim under the equal protection clause, the Court did not take it into consideration during the appeal.
As to Appellants’ claim that the amount jurors are paid causes jurors of lower economic status to not be able to serve, the Court found it did not give rise to an implied disparate impact claim under Washington State law. While the court acknowledged Appellants’ serration that King County’s jury pay caused them to ask for an economic hardship excusal, they are not exclusions for the purpose of the protections as the Washington Legislature intended. The legislative intent was to protect the opportunity for people to be considered for jury service and to impose the obligation to serve as a juror when summoned. Therefore, an excusal for economic hardship did not remove them from the master jury duty list.
Lastly, as to Appellants’ argument that King County violated the Washington Minimum Wage Act (MWA), the court agreed with King County. The Appellants’ claim focused on the degree of control King County exercises over jurors during jury service, but jury service is performed as a civic duty. Therefore, jurors are not entitled to compensation for their service and are entitled only to what compensation is granted to them by statute. Furthermore, being a juror in King County does not make the person a temporary employee of King County thus they would not be qualified to collect the minimum hourly wage for a county employee.
It is important that an attorney not only understand wage and hour claims and public entity defense, but to determine the quickest way to resolve a case, including filing Motions for Summary Judgment. It is also important to retain an attorney who can assert the proper defenses and understand the nuance of the legislature’s intent pertaining to laws and what defenses can be applied.
About the Author: Jenny A. Silverstein is an associate in the San Francisco office of Tyson & Mendes. She specializes in insurance defense. Contact Jenny at 628-253-5070 or firstname.lastname@example.org