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Ruiz v. Hope for Children, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Second Division

June 6, 2013

Charlotte L. Ruiz, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Hope for Children, Inc., Defendant-Appellee

Pueblo County District Court No. 11CV161. Honorable Jill S. Mattoon, Judge.

Michael W. Seckar, P.C., Lawrence D. Saunders, Pueblo, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Gradisar, Trechter, Ripperger & Roth, Douglas A. Gradisar, Pueblo, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee.

JUDGE DUNN. Casebolt and Lichtenstein, JJ., concur.



Page 984

[¶1] Plaintiff, Charlotte L. Ruiz, was employed as a Family Advocate for defendant, Hope for Children, Inc. She was terminated after she revealed that she was dating Seledonio Rodriguez, whom she met while he was a client at Hope for Children. Ruiz brought a claim for wrongful termination under Colorado's Lawful Activities Statute, section 24-34-402.5, C.R.S. 2012. The trial court agreed that Ruiz was terminated for a lawful activity conducted away from work. The court found, however, that the termination was not wrongful. Among other things, it found that, under the statute, an employer may restrict the lawful off-duty activities of its employees if the restriction is necessary to avoid a conflict of interest with any responsibility owed to the employer, or the appearance of such a conflict.

[¶2] We agree that the evidence was sufficient to conclude that Ruiz's romantic relationship with a current or former client of Hope for Children created, at a minimum, an apparent conflict of interest. We therefore affirm the trial court's judgment in favor of Hope for Children.

I. Background

[¶3] Seledonio Rodriguez was ordered by the Pueblo County District Court to attend parenting classes. To comply with the order, he completed a fatherhood program offered by Hope for Children, a small nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the safety and well-being of children and families by providing clients with educational, counseling, and other social services.

[¶4] Hope for Children had three employees, including Ruiz, who was the nonprofit's only Family Advocate. Her responsibilities included, among other things, maintaining client files and program certifications, assisting with outside agency referrals, conducting home visits, and liaising with the Department of Human Services and the court system. Because some clients, like Rodriguez, are referred to Hope for Children as the result of a court order, Ruiz was also required, if necessary, to verify a client's participation in a program. To this end, Ruiz was occasionally subpoenaed to testify in court regarding a client's participation in a Hope for Children program.

[¶5] After Rodriguez completed the court-ordered fatherhood program, he was encouraged to voluntarily enroll in a second parenting skills class offered by Hope for Children. At this point, Ruiz was introduced to Rodriguez. Ruiz was asked to, and did, help Rodriguez enroll in the second parenting skills program. He completed this second class on August 31, 2010. Several days later, Ruiz encountered Rodriguez at the Colorado State Fair. Shortly thereafter, the two began dating.

[¶6] In October, Ruiz told the executive director of Hope for Children, Leslie Kammeier, that she was going on a lunch date with Rodriguez. Kammeier testified that she informed Ruiz that it was inappropriate for her to date Rodriguez because he was a client of Hope for Children. Kammeier also told Ruiz that if she intended to continue a romantic relationship with Rodriguez, she could not continue to work for Hope for

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Children. Kammeier gave Ruiz a weekend to think about her decision. After the weekend, Ruiz informed Kammeier that she did not intend to end her relationship with Rodriguez and would not resign her position. Kammeier then terminated Ruiz's employment.

[¶7] Ruiz sued Hope for Children for wrongful termination under the Lawful Activities Statute, which, subject to certain enumerated defenses, prohibits terminating an employee for engaging in lawful activity outside of work and during nonworking hours.

[¶8] After a two-day bench trial, the trial court found that Ruiz was terminated " for engaging in a lawful activity outside of work." The court further found that the romantic relationship between Ruiz and a current or former client of Hope for Children " raise[d] an obvious issue of an actual conflict of interest, as well as the appearance of a conflict of interest." Accordingly, the trial court concluded that Hope for Children's restriction regarding employees dating current or former clients did not violate the statute, and it entered judgment in favor of Hope for Children.

[¶9] Ruiz appeals the trial court's judgment. She contends, as relevant here, that the trial court applied the conflict of interest defense too broadly, and consequently, that there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court's judgment.

II. Standard of Review

[¶10] Statutory interpretation is a question of law, which we review de novo. Smith v. Exec. Custom Homes, Inc., 230 P.3d 1186, 1189 (Colo. 2010); see also Watson v. Pub. Serv. Co., 207 P.3d 860, 863 (Colo.App. 2008) (interpreting Lawful Activities Statute). When interpreting a statute, our primary duty is to give effect to the intent of the General Assembly. Hayes v. Ottke, 2013 CO 1, ¶ 12, 293 P.3d 551, 554. If the statutory provisions are clear and unambiguous, we apply the words' plain and ordinary meanings to determine legislative intent. CLPF-Parkridge One, L.P. v. Harwell Invs., Inc., 105 P.3d 658, 660 (Colo. 2005). ...

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