by Bethany Blankley
A federal judge has awarded a former Southwest Airlines flight attendant the maximum amount in damages allowed under federal law and issued an injunction against the airline and its union from discriminating against flight attendants because of their religious beliefs.
Judge Brantley Starr, ruling for the U.S. District Court Northern District of Texas, last week ordered Southwest to pay Charlene Carter back pay and other forms of relief that the jury awarded when she won her lawsuit in July.
The jury had awarded her a total of $5.3 million in damages but because federal law limits damages that companies are required to pay, her award was reduced to $810,180 in damages and $150,000 in back pay.
Starr also ordered Southwest to fully reinstate Carter as a flight attendant and issued a permanent injunction against Southwest and Transportation Worker’s Union Local 556 (TWU) from discriminating against flight attendants under their purview because of their religious beliefs.
He issued the final judgement months after The Center Square publicized emails made public in court that show a union representative expressing support for “targeted assassinations” of union critics, likening them to a “cancerous tumor.”
In 2017, Carter was fired for her religious belief opposing abortion and opposing TWU’s political activity supporting it. She sued with free legal representation from the National Right to Work Foundation.
“Bags fly free with Southwest,” Starr wrote in the beginning of his decision. “But free speech didn’t fly at all with Southwest in this case.”
“Southwest may ‘wanna get away’ from Carter because she might continue to express her beliefs, but the jury found that Southwest unlawfully terminated Carter for her protected expressions,” he wrote.
He awarded the maximum amount under the law, he said, because if only “front pay” was awarded (the amount she’d earn until she found a new job), “the Court would complete Southwest’s unlawful scheme” of firing dissenting employees.
Carter lost and won more than money over the past five years, however, NRWF President Mark Mix argued.
“Southwest and TWU union officials made Ms. Carter pay an unconscionable price just because she decided to speak out against the political activities of union officials in accordance with her deeply held religious beliefs,” Mix said. “This decision vindicates Ms. Carter’s rights – but it’s also a stark reminder of the retribution that union officials will mete out against employees who refuse to toe the union line.”
Mix also warned that her victory “should prompt nationwide scrutiny of union bosses’ coercive, government-granted powers over workers, especially in the airline and rail industries. Even after her victory, she and her colleagues at Southwest and other airlines under union control are forced, as per the Railway Labor Act, to pay money to union officials just to keep their jobs.”
Starr ordered Southwest and TWU to pay prejudgment interest and sanctioned them for their attorneys failing to comply with a court order to make a witness available for a deposition. Southwest and the TWU union were ordered to pay Carter more than $25,000 in fees and costs. The court will also later award Carter additional fees and costs as a result of the final judgment in her favor, her attorneys said.
Notably, the court’s injunction explicitly prohibits Southwest and TWU from discriminating against Carter for exercising her rights under the RLA.
“The Court ENJOINS Defendants from discriminating against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs, including – but not limited to – those expressed on social media and those concerning abortion,” Starr wrote.
He also ruled Carter may, under the RLA, object to paying part of the forced union dues used for political and other lawfully nonchargeable union expenses, pursuant to the NRWF’s U.S. Supreme Court victory in Ellis v. Railway Clerks (1984).
Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King told the Dallas Morning News the company plans to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Without addressing TWU referring to employees as a “cancerous tumor,” she said, “Southwest Airlines has a demonstrated history of supporting our employees’ rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner. We are in the process of assessing the requirements of the recent judgment as we move forward with our plans for an appeal.”
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