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United Airlines Age Discrimination Verdict Upheld

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against workers ages 40 and older based on their age under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). When an older employee is terminated, it can sometimes be difficult to prove that the employer based the termination decision on the employee's age, however. In many cases, employers will provide other reasons for terminating older employees. A recent decision out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit illustrates how companies might use pretextual reasons to try to claim that their termination decisions were based on something other than the employees' age.

Factual and Procedural Background

In Stroup, et. al. v. United Airlines Inc., No. 19-1373 (10th Cir. 2022), two flight attendants who were terminated by United Airlines, Inc. filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination. Jeanne Stroup was 55 years old, and Ruben Lee was 61 years old. Both had worked for United Airlines for multiple decades as flight attendants. Stroup had worked for United for 30 years, and Lee had done so for 41 years. Both had provided good service to United for years with only minor disciplinary infractions during their careers and were based out of Denver, Colorado.

In Aug. 2013, another flight attendant, Sheila Simms, filed a complaint about Stroup and Lee with Mark Dodge, their supervisor, about their behavior on a flight. Simms claimed that Stroup and Lee watched a video together on an iPad during the flight in violation of United's rules. Mr. Dodge emailed Dean Whittaker, the supervisor of in-flight services at Denver International Airport. Whittaker asked a supervisor based in California, Deepesh Bagwe, to take a flight between Denver and San Francisco to surveil Stroup and Lee and check whether they watched a video.

Mr. Bagwe observed several violations of United's policies during the flight and photographed Stroup and Lee sitting on carrier boxes while sharing a pair of earbuds to watch a video. Bagwe also observed Lee smoking an e-cigarette. He also said that Lee was not in the proper position to provide instructions at the beginning of the flight and that both failed to wear name tags and aprons during the beverage service. He also noted that Lee gave a customer a free alcoholic beverage and that both failed to observe proper sanitation procedures during the beverage service.

Per the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) United had with the union, Dodge met with both Stroup and Lee and their union representative to talk about the policy violations. He then issued a letter of charge to both Stroup and Lee. Under the CBA, United was prohibited from terminating flight attendants for any other reason than those stated in the letter of charge. Stroup's letter of charge listed her violations as her watching a video and using earbuds during the flight, sitting on the carrier boxes, and failing to wear her name tag and apron during the beverage service. Mr. Lee's letter of charge included the same allegations as well as noting him smoking an e-cigarette, standing sideways while giving the instructions, and giving a customer a free small bottle of vodka. Neither letter of charge included any allegations of safety violations or dishonesty.

At the disciplinary hearing, Whittaker served as the hearing officer. He did not find Stroup or Lee to be credible and terminated them largely because he did not believe that they were trustworthy although dishonesty was not listed in either of their letters of charge. Whittaker told Mr. Kyle that he decided to terminate both flight attendants. Mr. Kyle asked for him to allow both to retire instead, so he allowed them to do so.

Both Stroup and Lee filed age discrimination lawsuits against United, arguing they were terminated based on their ages and that the reasons given for their terminations were pretextual. The case went to a jury trial. The jury found in favor of Stroup and Lee and also found that United's age discrimination was willful. Both flight attendants were awarded $200,000 in back pay, $200,000 in additional damages because the jury found that United's discrimination was willful, and front pay of $206,862 for Lee and $314,711 for Stroup.

United filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) and a motion for a new trial, arguing that there was insufficient evidence presented by the Plaintiffs to support the jury's finding that it violated the ADEA or that its violation was willful. The U.S. District Court Judge denied the motion and found that Stroup and Lee had presented credible evidence that they were treated differently than other flight attendants and that the reasons given for their terminations by United were deceptive and pretextual. United filed an appeal.

Issue: Did Stroup and Lee present sufficient evidence that United violated the ADEA and that it did so willfully?

On appeal, United argued that Stroup and Lee failed to present sufficient evidence that United violated the ADEA. They also argued that the Plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence that any violation was willful and that the court committed reversible error when it admitted the Plaintiffs' testimony about their emotional distress.

Rule: Employers cannot treat employees older than age 40 differently than other employees based on their age.

Under the ADEA, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against older employees ages 40 and older based on their age. The prohibition against illegal age discrimination includes treating them differently than how younger employees are treated. For example, an employer that has a progressive discipline system for younger employees must also use the same type of system when disciplining older employees.

Analysis

The court began by noting that it is difficult to prevail on a JMOL since it asks the court to invalidate the findings of the jury. The court instead must look at whether there is substantial evidence to support the jury's finding even if there was also contrary evidence admitted.

United argued that the Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof to show that United constructively discharged them based on their age. It argued that the Plaintiffs had admitted that they did not have direct evidence that they were terminated based on their ages. It also argued that the Plaintiffs repeatedly lied and violated multiple policies and that the airline exercised its business judgment in deciding to terminate them.

The Plaintiffs argued that they had presented sufficient evidence for the jury to determine that United had terminated them based on their age and noted that pretext can be a basis for age discrimination. The court found that there was substantial circumstantial evidence for the jury to find that United had provided pretextual reasons. The court noted that the CBA prevented United from firing flight attendants for any reason other than what was included in their letters of charge, but Whittaker stated that he largely based his decision on their dishonesty.

The court also noted that the supervisor who surveilled Stroup and Lee testified that it was the only time out of 50 similar observations that he had been asked to watch specific flight attendants instead of monitoring all of them on a flight. While United had a system of progressive discipline in place for other flight attendants, the court noted that Stroup and Lee were not allowed to go through that system and were instead terminated for relatively minor infractions. The 10th Circuit found that the Plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence that the jury could use to determine that the actual reason for their terminations was their ages instead of the reasons given by the airline.

It also found that the Plaintiffs presented enough evidence for the jury to find that United's violation of the ADEA was willful. Finally, the court found that the admission of the emotional distress testimony did not have a prejudicial effect on the jury's verdict.

Conclusion

The 10th Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision to deny United's JMOL and its motion for a new trial.

Speak to an Age Discrimination Lawyer

If you believe that the reason your employer fired you was based on your age, you should talk to an experienced employment attorney at Steven M. Sweat, APC. Call us today to request a free consultation at 866-966-5240.

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