Appeals Court Upholds Rationale for Firing Facilities Manager Who Advocated Better Padding Behind Basketball Goals

Nov 10, 2017

A Washington state appeals court has affirmed a trial court’s ruling that Gonzaga University “possessed an overriding justification to terminate” the employment of its assistant director of the Rudolf Fitness Center (RFC), who had claimed he was fired because he advocated for protective padding on the wall behind the baskets in the basketball field house.
In a majority decision, the panel of judges noted plaintiff David Martin’s insubordination and other actions he took that ran counter to the reasonable expectations of his employer.
By way of background, the RFC was opened in 2003 for use by students, faculty, and staff. The university’s Athletics Department oversees the fitness center. In the early years, university students sustained injuries when playing basketball and striking bare concrete walls behind the baskets in the RFC, including concussions, head trauma, broken bones, dislocated shoulders, and lacerations.
In 2004, Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Standiford instructed Assistant Athletics Director Jose Hernandez to hire a risk management consultant to assess the need for pads along the walls of the basketball courts. The Athletics Department later declined to follow the consultant’s recommendation to install pads. The university then estimated the cost of the padding as $30,000.
In 2007, Hernandez again engaged a consultant to assess the need for safeguarding pads and the costs of the pads. After the second assessment, Hernandez recommended to his supervisor, Assistant Athletics Director Joel Morgan, that Gonzaga University install the pads. The Athletics Department again declined to install the recommended pads.
Gonzaga University hired plaintiff David Martin on January 2, 2008, to work as an assistant director of the RFC. In addition to his wages, Martin received other benefits, including health insurance and free tuition. Martin utilized his tuition benefit and enrolled in Gonzaga’s master’s degree program for sports administration. Martin reported to Hernandez, who reported to Morgan. Morgan reported to Standiford, who reported to Mike Roth, the AD.
After Martin’s hire, Gonzaga University students continued to sustain injuries while playing basketball in the RFC and striking concrete walls while running full speed. Martin “requested that Gonzaga University install protective padding on the field house walls behind the basketball hoops, although we lack evidence as to the number of times and the dates of the requests,” according to the court.
“Martin deemed that Gonzaga University held a legal obligation to maintain a safe environment for students and employees. He worried that blood and other bodily fluids spilled during accidents could create pathogen hazards. In response to Martin’s expression of concern, Hernandez informed Martin that requests for protective padding could be made only once a year at the budget meeting. In a deposition, Hernandez confirmed that Martin spoke to him about installing pads. According to Hernandez, Martin repeatedly and passionately spoke about the need for wall padding.”
Martin claimed that before he raised this safety concern to Hernandez, he received a raise for good work performance. That changed in 2011 when he was labeled as being “inconsistent.” No supervisor signed the April 2011 performance review.
Martin’s performance continued to decline, just as he continued to push for protective padding.
As part of his thesis project for his master’s program, he wrote a proposal to continue use of the RFC pool and use funds raised from enjoyment of the pool to purchase protective wall padding for the basketball courts. Martin submitted his pool and padding proposal to Hernandez and asked if he could submit the proposal to Standiford. Dissatisfied with Hernandez’ effort, Martin, on February 29, 2012, sent his proposal Standiford.
According to Martin, Standiford directed him to forward the thesis proposal to Hernandez for Hernandez to make the presentation. Martin believed this was designed “to kill the proposal through administrative inaction. Hernandez lacked the knowledge and ability to make the presentation.”
The relationship between Martin and Hernandez soured, leading to Martin being fired on March 8, 2012. Oddly, the day before, a student sustained a serious head injury from running into the wall at the RFC basketball court. An ambulance rushed the student to the hospital. The student suffered a concussion and required stitches.
Further exacerbating matters was the fact that Martin allegedly leaked information to the Gonzaga Bulletin, a Gonzaga University student publication, which was entitled “Gym safety questioned as employee fired.”
The article can be seen here:
Following Martin’s termination in 2012, the Athletics Department requested a third assessment of the need for protective padding on the basketball court walls. Pads were installed at a cost of $18,000.
Martin ultimately sued, alleging that the university terminated his employment in violation of public policy for raising concerns about the lack of wall padding for the basketball court.
The appeals court was unmoved.
“The undisputed facts establish that David Martin persistently and self-interestedly promoted himself and his thesis, which sought to keep open a pool in the RFC,” it wrote. “The saving of the pool did not advance any public policy. While promoting this pool, he repeatedly disobeyed directives from his superiors to follow a chain of command. He heatedly left a meeting and then abandoned his duties to close the center. While on leave, he disobeyed a directive not to contact employees of Gonzaga University other than the employees in the Human Resource office and Jose Hernandez. He telephoned and e-mailed the Gonzaga University president, through the president’s assistant. Martin’s earlier job performance evaluations showed him to lack interpersonal and professional communication skills with coworkers, issue abrasive and insensitive written communications, and neglect job responsibilities. Martin resented supervision. Martin presents no testimony that counters these facts. Martin’s own written communications establish these facts.
“We hold that insubordination is a qualifying justification for purposes of element four of the tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. We also conclude that the undisputed facts establish insubordination by Martin.”
David Martin v. Gonzaga University; CT. App. Wash., Div. 3; No. 34103-8-III, 2017 Wash. App. LEXIS 2094; 9/7/17
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) Julie C. Watts (of The Law Office of Julie C. Watts PLLC). (for respondent) Michael B. Love (of Michael Love Law PLLC).


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