Law Firms

Firm hired by state AG to investigate gay lawyer's bias claim is protected from suit, court says

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Updated: The Washington Supreme Court has ruled for a law firm contending that it was protected from lawsuit by a lawyer who claimed that its investigation into his bias claim was negligent.

The court ruled for Ogden Murphy Wallace, a law firm hired by the state attorney general to investigate a bias claim by one of the office’s employees, lawyer Roger Leishman.

Leishman sued the firm after taking issue with its conclusions.

The state supreme court said Ogden Murphy Wallace is protected by a state anti-SLAPP law barring legal claims that arise from protected speech to the government.

Thomson Reuters Legal covered the Jan. 28 opinion.

The law firm was hired to investigate after Leishman, an openly gay man, claimed that his supervisor made homophobic comments, increasing his symptoms of anxiety, according to prior coverage by Bloomberg Law. In a meeting with the supervisor, he became angry and raised his voice.

The law firm found that the lawyer’s claim of sexual orientation bias lacked support, and his behavior in a meeting with his supervisor violated expected standards of conduct.

Leishman alleged that the law firm’s report left out key evidence and included information that was fabricated by his supervisors. He alleged fraud, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and discrimination by the law firm.

SLAPP is an acronym for strategic lawsuits against public participation. Anti-SLAPP laws allow for dismissal of suits brought against people who make statements on matters of public concern.

The state supreme court ruled that government contractors hired to conduct independent investigations are “persons” covered by the state’s anti-SLAPP law. The statute was passed to protect people from retaliatory lawsuits that could deter them from making vital reports to the appropriate governmental body, the court said.

“The legislature could hardly have made it any clearer that this is an immunity with broad application,” the state supreme court said.

In August 2021, a concurring justice whose opinion was controlling in this case issued an amended opinion that changed the result.

The new concurrence by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said she would remand the case to the trial court to determine whether the law firm is immunized from all of Leishman’s claims or only some of them. McCloud said claims based upon the conduct of the investigation should survive, but claims based on the law firm’s communications to government should not.

Updated Oct. 19 at 10:04 a.m. to include additional information from the amended opinion.

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