OLYMPIA — Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom heard arguments today on two more summary judgment motions filed in the Attorney General’s Office’s consumer protection case against Arlene’s Flowers, a Richland florist, and its owner and operator, Barronelle Stutzman.
In April 2013, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers and Stutzman after she refused to provide flowers to customer Robert Ingersoll for his wedding to his husband, Curt Freed.
“Washington state businesses cannot discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service.”
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. The state sought only compliance with the law and did not seek any fees or penalties. Had she agreed to no longer discriminate, there would be no lawsuit.
Her attorneys responded that she would challenge any state action to enforce the law in her case.
Today’s hearing addressed two motions, one filed by the state and one filed by the defendants.
The Attorney General’s Office filed a motion addressing the merits of the case. The state argues that there is no dispute about the relevant facts — the defendants refused to provide Ingersoll a service they offer for opposite-sex weddings — so there is no need for a full trial, and Judge Ekstrom should rule that the defendants violated the Consumer Protection Act as a matter of law.
The defendants claim that there are disputed facts and that they have a constitutional right to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples seeking to marry.
Separately, the defendants filed a motion arguing the Attorney General’s Office does not have standing to bring a lawsuit because, they claim, they would not have discriminated against Ingersoll if they had understood what he wanted.
The Attorney General’s Office responds that, even if that were true, the defendants’ discrimination against Ingersoll already occurred and cannot be undone, and defendants have made clear their intent to continue discriminating in the future.
Ingersoll and Freed were also heard on a motion for summary judgment. They are represented in a separate lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Three motions for summary judgment were heard Dec. 5, but the court has not yet issued a decision. Those motions involve two 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.
At the Dec. 5 hearing, the state argued that under the Consumer Protection Act, any person can be liable for unfair or deceptive practices if they participate in those practices or have knowledge of the wrongful acts and approve them. The Attorney General’s Office also argued the act gives it broad authority to take action against unfair or deceptive acts that occur in trade or commerce, including, as in this case, a refusal to provide services to a consumer based on his or her sexual orientation.
The state is asking for a permanent injunction requiring Stutzman and Arlene’s Flowers to comply with the Washington Consumer Protection Act.
Solicitor General Noah Purcell, Senior Counsel Todd Bowers of the Consumer Protection Division, and Assistant Attorney General Kim Gunning of the Consumer Protection Division represented the state at today’s hearing.
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.
Alison Dempsey-Hall, Acting Communications Director