• Second Circuit Rejects Former Flight Attendant's RLA Discharge Claim
  • April 6, 2011
  • Law Firm: Ford Harrison LLP - Atlanta Office
  • The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed judgment in favor of JetBlue on a flight attendant's claim that the airline discharged her because of her participation in union-related activities in violation of the Railway Labor Act (RLA). See Amarsingh v. JetBlue (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2011). The court held that the former flight attendant failed to present sufficient evidence to convince a jury that she was discharged for any reason other than because she told an unruly passenger to "get the f--- out of my face."

    The plaintiff worked as a flight attendant for JetBlue from 2000 until 2007. Beginning in late 2006 or early 2007, she became involved with AFA's efforts to unionize the JetBlue flight attendants. In June 2007, while working and preparing for a flight from Las Vegas to New York City, the plaintiff became involved in a confrontation with an agitated and apparently intoxicated JetBlue passenger. The confrontation ended when the plaintiff told the passenger to "get the f--- out of my face." The passenger subsequently filed a complaint with JetBlue's Customer Service department. After investigating the incident, JetBlue discharged the plaintiff. She then filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming JetBlue fired her because of her efforts to unionize the flight attendants. A federal trial court in New York ruled in favor of JetBlue and the Second Circuit affirmed this decision.

    The RLA prohibits employers from engaging in discriminatory actions designed to impede or inhibit employees' exercise of their right to organize for collective bargaining purposes. In analyzing whether the plaintiff could show that JetBlue discharged her because of her efforts to unionize the flight attendants in violation of the RLA, the Second Circuit adopted the analysis courts have used for similar cases under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Under this analysis, the complaining employee bears the burden of showing that her protected conduct was a substantial or motivating factor prompting the discharge. If the employee meets this burden, the employer must show that it would have reached the same decision in the absence of the protected conduct. See Wright Line, A Division of Wright Line, Inc., 251 N.L.R.B. 1083, 1083-88 (1980).

    To show that her protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor in her discharge, the plaintiff had to show that: 1) she engaged in activity protected by the RLA; 2) the employer was aware of her protected activity; 3) the employer harbored animus toward the protected activity; and 4) the animus was a causal factor in her termination. The court held that there was no dispute that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity (efforts to organize the flight attendants) and that JetBlue management was aware of this activity. The court also found that the record supported a reasonable inference that JetBlue "did not look favorably" on the plaintiff's ongoing protected activities. However, the court held that the plaintiff failed to show that JetBlue discharged her because of its opposition to her unionization efforts.

    The court held that the plaintiff's behavior during the Las Vegas incident was "manifestly enough" to justify her discharge and that she failed to present sufficient evidence to permit a jury to find that JetBlue discharged her for any reason other than this behavior. The court noted that the plaintiff's behavior was clear violation of JetBlue policy, which prohibits "all forms of threats, harassment, intimidation . . . including verbal, physical or psychological assaults by any Crewmember against another Crewmember, Customer or Business Partner" and which provides that JetBlue employees may be fired on account of one occurrence of "a severe single issue." The court also noted that the plaintiff herself admitted shortly after the incident that she was worried that JetBlue would fire her because of her "use of the f--- word." The court found it significant that the plaintiff "did not imply that she feared a retaliatory firing; the clear implication of her testimony is that she understood that she had violated company policy in a manner that made discipline likely, and firing at least possible." (emphasis in original).

    Accordingly, the Second Circuit affirmed the trial court's order of summary judgment in favor of JetBlue.