Either I’m missing something big or a recent case has resulted in a clear miscarriage of justice. Either way, a case in which two United Airlines flight attendants were awarded more than $2 million in compensatory damages for age discrimination merits our further thought.
A Bizzarre Legal Victory For Two Flight Attendants Who Confessed To Breaking Many Rules, But Sued United Airlines For Age Discrimination When They Were Fired
Once again, a battle between flight attendants is at play. A flight attendant named Sheila Simms made an internal complaint against two of her co-workers, Jeannie Stroup and Ruben Lee. Both are United flight attendants based in Denver. The complaint alleged that the flight attendants were watching a movie an iPad while on duty.
Investigating the matter, United purportedly sent a supervisor onboard a flight five weeks later from Denver to San Francisco to covertly observe the pair of flight attendants. On that flight, the supervisor observed the flight attendants break several rules. Lee was observed smoking an e-cigarette during the flight and both watched a video together on an iPad while sitting on metal galley boxes and sharing earbuds.
But wait, there’s more. Lee was also “caught” giving out a mini bottle of alcohol for free to an economy class passenger, not performing a mid-flight water service properly (as is prescribed by United’s internal service guidelines), not wearing his name tag, and for not standing in the correct position during the pre-flight safety demonstration.
A further investigation ensued, but both Stroup (who had 29 years of seniority) and Lee (who had 40 years of seniority) opted to retire before facing termination.
Yet both sued United after retiring, claiming age discrimination. A jury of peers found that United’s story was full of inconsistencies, the witnesses were unreliable, and that there were “procedural irregularities” in how the matter was dealt with internally.
Notably, however, neither Stroup nor Lee denied breaking the rules. Instead, they argued such violations were both “minor” and “commonplace” and argued that other flight attendants were not fired for the same thing.
At the crux of the case was the idea that rather than subject the flight attendant to escalating levels of discipline, they were simply targeted for termination, showcasing “entirely subjective disciplinary decision-making.”
United appealed the jury verdict, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it, arguing:
“We conclude that there was substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict. More specifically, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to reasonably determine that United’s stated reasons for disciplining Plaintiffs were a pretext for unlawful age discrimination.”
(at the appellate level, the standard is whether the jury’s finding of fact was clearly erroneous, not whether it was in fact right or wrong)
You can read the full 52-page opinion here.
In short, the jury believed the flight attendants and not United Airlines. That’s it.
And that goes to show the power of having a good attorney which can resonate with the jury. I’m frankly flabbergasted that these flight attendants were able to twist their clear (and admitted) offenses into a shocking multi-million dollar judgment.
Does it really matter if United went harder on these employees than others (for argument’s sake)? Legally, absolutely (to be clear – I don’t believe the was proven by the plaintiffs, which is why I lament this case). But how about morally? They broke the rules and they knew better (after so many years on the job). So what if some got a slap on the wrist (unmerited mercy) due to unique circumstances surrounding their case or employment history?
How can United possibly monitor 20,000 flights attendants beyond what co-workers or passengers report? That doesn’t mean those who violate clearly-defined rules should also expect to get away, even if it is more senior employees who tend to be uniquely guilty of these offenses (not because of their age, per se, but because they are more comfortable in their roles and feel emboldened to push the boundaries). Yet that is not how employment discrimination, alleged or real, works. United failed to convince the jury that it adapted an even-handed approach. True or not, the jury believed the flight attendants.
This really strikes me as one of those cases in which a clever attorney made United out to be the big, bad, deep-pocketed corporation which took advantage of two, poor flight attendants when it seems to me that just the opposite is true: two flight attendants took advantage of their employer and made a mockery of justice…