United Airlines will pay more than $2 million in compensation to two veteran flight attendants after a federal appeals court upheld a jury’s decision that the carrier had fired the long-serving flight attendants because of their age.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that there was enough evidence for a jury to rationally believe that United discriminated against the flight attendants because of their age in a long 52-page opinion.
The conflict dates back to 2013 when a flight attendant lodged an internal complaint against two of her coworkers, Jeannie Stroup and Ruben Lee, both of whom are located in Denver.
Stroup and Lee were suspected of infringing United’s rules by viewing a movie on an iPad while on duty during a trip, so a supervisor was assigned to supervise them on a five-week voyage between Denver and San Francisco.
The flight attendants allegedly broke a number of safety and service rules during this flight, according to the supervisor.
During the flight, Lee was seen smoking an e-cigarette, both flight attendants sat on metal galley boxes, which was against safety standards, and they watched a video on an iPad together.
Lee was also spotted offering a free tiny bottle of vodka to an Economy passenger, failing to stand in the proper position for the safety demonstration, and violating United’s own guidelines for providing mid-flight water.
The two flight attendants decided to retire before being sacked after months of investigation. Stroup had been a United flight attendant for 29 years, while Lee had worked for the airline for more than 40 years. When they departed United, they were 55 and 61 years old, respectively.
The two ex-crew members filed a lawsuit against United shortly after quitting the airline, alleging age discrimination. The flight attendants persuaded the jury during the course of a five-day trial that United’s witnesses lacked credibility, that United’s explanations were inconsistent, and that there were procedural errors.
Stroup and Lee did not try to hide the fact that they had broken the rules but maintained that they were “commonplace” and “trivial” in nature and that similar infractions by other flight attendants had not resulted in their dismissal.
In truth, United’s internal standards dictated that flight attendants face gradually increasing levels of discipline, yet the airline was attempting to terminate the crew members in this case.
“We conclude that there was substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict,” the appeal judges wrote in their 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”.
Stroup and Lee had asked for $1 million in compensation, but due to the appeal, United now has to pay twice that much.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for United said the airline “is proud of its diverse workforce that includes employees in every age range.”
“We will continue to hire and retain people who enjoy long careers at the airline,” the statement concluded.