How did firing two FAs for “not doing their jobs” become a civil rights lawsuit in which United Airlines stands to lose $1.5MN?
Ruben Lee and Jeanne Stroup had been United flight attendants for over 35 years. But in September 2013 both were fired after watching a video together on an iPad during a flight from Denver to San Francisco and for failing to wear aprons during meal service.
They sued…on the grounds that they were fired due to their age. You can read their complaint here.
According to their complaint (which tells the story in a way most favorable to them), Supervisor Deepesh Bagwe observed the two watching an iPad and not wearing an apron while performing a secret and random audit of the flight. At the time, United had instituted an “Unannounced Excellence Review” program in order to encourage better service from FAs. Consequently, Bagwe was akin to a “mystery shopper” onboard the flight.
Soon thereafter, the FAs received a Letter of Charge from United…one step short of unpaid leave or termination. About a month later, United completed its investigation and via an AFA (union) representative, gave the FAs an ultimatum: retire immediately or be terminated and lose healthcare and pass travel privileges.
The FAs retired.
Essentially, both FAs boasted a stellar work record prior to this incident. They alleged that United specifically targeted them for investigation because of their age. Furthermore, they argued that watching iPads after the initial meal service was not prohibited.
Jury Sides with FAs
The crux of the case turned on the plaintiff’s argument that United had no system for determining discipline levels for rule-breaking. Instead, the severity of an infraction was at the discretion of the supervisor.
The jury bought this argument. United also hurt its case greatly thanks to poor witnesses.
Attorney David Lane, who represented the FAs, boasted of one particular encounter to Westword:
Lane put a supervisor on the witness stand, he recalls, “and I said, ‘In the hierarchy of rule violations, these are pretty ticky-tacky.’ He said, ‘I don’t agree.’ I said, ‘For example, watching an iPad for a few minutes is certainly less serious than lighting a campfire in the bathroom of a flight when it’s at 35,000 feet.’ And he said, ‘No, I disagree with that.’ I said, ‘Seriously? You think lighting a campfire in the bathroom is as serious as watching an iPad for a few minutes?’ And he said, ‘Yes.'”
How did the jury respond to this assertion? “Oh, my God,” Lane replies. “They just rolled their eyes and sat back in their seats.”
It took the jury only a few hours to award the FAs $800,000 in backpay. Now a judge must calculate “front pay” and legal fees, likely to push damages to over $1.5MN.
Absent the (unpublished) court transcripts, I’m actually conflicted about the lawsuit and not in position to fully express my opinion. On the one hand, this sort of behavior reinforces a culture of mediocrity. The AFA is a powerful union and likely would not present two member FAs with such an ultimatum if totally unwarranted. But on the other hand, FAs are contractually entitled to fair and consistent disciplinary procedures. Further, watching an iPad is not the problem if they were otherwise following service protocols (checking on cabin every 15 minutes). In any case, I think the charge of ageism is absurd and this case makes United far less likely to go after FAs for real infractions.
(H/T View from the Wing)