East Wenatchee Water District Sued by Longtime Employee Fired After Being Injured on the Job
Beth Bloom | Seattle, WA. November 28, 2023
Employer more concerned about insurance premiums fires high-performing employee, Brian Kniffen, rather than offer accommodations.
Please see the attached complaint filed today against the East Wenatchee Water District by Brian Kniffen, a longtime employee who was injured on the job and eventually wrongfully fired.
This is a worker’s compensation retaliation case where an employer more concerned about insurance premiums than accommodating a hard-working, high-performing employee who was injured on the job, fired that employee in violation of the law.
Brian Kniffen went to work for the East Wenatchee Water District, a public water utility service, shortly after graduating high school. As a utility field inspector, he was responsible for inspecting construction projects in the District’s service area. Throughout his nearly 30-year tenure with the District, Kniffen met or exceeded the performance expectations for that position.
But over the years, Kniffen also suffered on-the-job injuries. In 2020, he injured his back while twisting a large water valve on a job site. Two months later, his supervisor, the general manager of the District, emailed internally, expressing concern that Kniffen’s history of high-cost injury claims could disqualify the District from participation in the insurance risk pool. Not long after, the situation worsened when Kniffen reinjured his back.
In April 2021, Kniffen asked the District to accommodate his disability by not requiring him to manually open valves or lift more than 50 pounds. Initially, the District granted his request and successfully accommodated his restrictions, which had been recommended by his physician. For the next seven months, Kniffen continued performing his utility field inspector job with accommodation. Co-workers or other individuals on the job site opened valves and Kniffen used dollies, lifting mechanisms and other equipment to avoid lifting more than 50 pounds.
Then in June 2021, the District received a written warning that the Washington Association of Water & Sewer Districts insurance risk pool was considering ejecting the District because of Kniffen’s history of injury claims.
Kniffen claims his supervisor’s attitude toward him changed and he began treating Kniffen with open hostility. It was obvious to Kniffen that District leaders wanted to force him out of his job.
His assumption was correct. In November 2021, the District fired Kniffen, claiming that there was no available permanent reasonable disability accommodation to allow him to continue working. But this was untrue.
There were multiple options the District could have chosen to accommodate Kniffen. The District could have restructured his job by having other employees open valves. It could have purchased a truck-mounted valve exerciser, a basic safety device which is commonly used at many Washington State Water Districts. Kniffen proposed purchasing the device to his supervisor, who acknowledged his request, stated that the cost was not the issue, but didn’t buy the safety device.
Another option would have been to transfer Kniffen to a vacant position for which he was qualified. In fact, the day after terminating Kniffen, the District publicly sought job applicants for an open position Kniffen had filled in for on numerous occasions while employed.
All Kniffen was seeking was reasonable accommodation for certain tasks involving heavy exertion. Instead, the District, assuming his injuries were more severe than they were, fired him.
After almost 30 years of steady employment, Kniffen was forced to move across the state to find new work. He left Wenatchee, the only place he has ever lived, leaving his mother and disabled daughter behind. Kniffen had been looking forward to retirement in a few years. He had long believed that loyalty and hard work meant something in his life.
In Washington, employees faced with unsafe working conditions generally cannot sue their employers for workplace injuries. Their only remedy is to file worker’s compensation injury claims with the state Department of Labor & Industries.1 And disability accommodations are legally required when they are reasonable and do not cause undue hardship. They play a crucial role in ensuring employees with disabilities can succeed and feel valued in their workplace.
“Washington law promises to take care of the medical needs of employees hurt at work,” said Jay Free of Bloom Law who is representing Kniffen in this matter. “But in this case, Brian Kniffen got injured after his employer skimped on safety measures to save costs. Then, concerned that Brian’s worker’s compensation claims would increase insurance premiums, the East Wenatchee Water District ignored laws that require accommodating disabled employees. They tried to force him to quit and when he wouldn’t, they retaliated by firing him. This was in clear violation of laws designed to protect disabled workers and those injured on the job.”
“This case involves a complete breakdown of the laws meant to keep us safe,” said Beth Bloom of Bloom Law. “When one of us is hurt at work, suffers retaliation for filing legitimate injury claims, and then can’t get the disability accommodations the law requires, it hurts all workers. How can we go to work each day and come home in one piece, if employers like the East Wenatchee Water District can flaunt the law without accountability?”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has intensified its enforcement against businesses that do not provide appropriate accommodations to qualified disabled workers or job seekers. The Commission took legal action against an employer accused of unlawfully refusing telework to an individual who faced an increased risk of severe COVID-19 complications. In February, the Commission initiated legal proceedings against an organization for not accommodating an employee suffering from breast cancer, which led to her resignation.
1 The Washington Industrial Insurance Act, under RCW Title 51, provides that injured workers receive workers’ compensation benefits, which grants employers immunity from lawsuits. For more information on worker’s compensation fundamentals, see this publication from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.