OLYMPIA — Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom today agreed with the Attorney General’s Office that the Attorney General has the authority to bring a consumer protection lawsuit against a Richland flower shop and its owner. In addition, Judge Ekstrom ruled that the shop owner can be held personally liable for violating the Consumer Protection Act.
The lawsuit was filed in April 2013 after Barronelle Stutzman, owner/operator of Arlene’s Flowers, refused to provide wedding flowers to longtime customer Robert Ingersoll, who was planning his wedding to his husband, Curt Freed. Stutzman refused to serve him based on her opposition to marriage between people of the same sex.
“It’s no accident that Judge Ekstrom’s ruling so closely mirrors our arguments, and we look forward to the decision on the remaining motions,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “We believe Washington law is very clear that businesses in Washington cannot discriminate. If you serve opposite-sex partners, you must serve same-sex partners equally.”
Before filing the lawsuit, the Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to Stutzman asking her to comply with Washington law, which prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Her attorneys responded that she would challenge any state action to enforce the law in her case.
The motions decided today involve two major issues. First, whether Stutzman can be found individually liable under the Consumer Protection Act. Second, whether the Attorney General’s Office has authority under the Consumer Protection Act to bring this case.
Ekstrom agreed that having a separate corporation does not protect Stutzman from the Consumer Protection Act. Any person can be liable for unfair or deceptive practices occurring in trade or commerce if they participate in these practices or have knowledge of the wrongful acts and approve them.
“As admitted by Stutzman, she not only participated in the conduct alleged, her own personal actions (in defining corporate policy and in her interaction with Ingersoll) constitute the sum total of the conduct complained of by the plaintiffs,” Ekstrom wrote.
Ekstrom also agreed that the Attorney General has broad power to enforce the Consumer Protection Act. Ekstrom said that to agree with the defendants’ arguments “would completely deny the AG, the sole government agency entitled to enforce the CPA, the ability to vindicate the public’s interest in ending discrimination … committed ‘in the course of trade or commerce.’”
Two additional motions remain to be decided: the defendants’ claim that the Attorney General’s Office and the individual plaintiffs lack legal standing to sue; and a motion by the Attorney General and the individual plaintiffs for summary judgment — asserting that the undisputed facts show the defendants violated the Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
The Attorney General’s Office is asking for a permanent injunction requiring Stutzman and Arlene’s Flowers to comply with the Washington Consumer Protection Act.
Senior Counsel Todd Bowers and Assistant Attorney General Kim Gunning of the Consumer Protection Division and Solicitor General Noah Purcell are handling this case.
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The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is working hard to protect consumers and seniors against fraud, keep our communities safe, protect our environment and stand up for our veterans. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov