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Ex-Southwest Flight Attendant Wins $5.1 Million in Bias Row

July 15, 2022, 2:48 PM

Southwest Airlines Co. and Transport Workers Union of America Local 556 must pay $5.1 million in damages to an anti-abortion Christian flight attendant who was fired after she clashed with a union president over its attendance at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, after a Dallas federal jury found they engaged in discrimination and retaliation.

The jury, sitting in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, found Thursday that Southwest retaliated against Charlene Carter by engaging in activity protected by the Railway Labor Act, unlawfully discriminated against her by firing her and that her termination was motivated by her religious beliefs. The jury also found that Southwest failed to accommodate her religious beliefs.

TWU Local 556 violated the duty of fair representation and retaliated against Carter for engaging in activity protected by the Railway Labor Act, the jury held. The union unlawfully discriminated against Carter by treating her less favorably than other employees and causing her discharge due to her religious beliefs, the jury said. And Local 556 unlawfully failed to accommodate Carter’s religious beliefs, the jury also found.

Carter was fired after the union’s president, Audrey Stone, reported several Facebook messages Carter sent her denouncing the union’s participation in the Women’s March. That came four years after Carter resigned from the union after which she waged a recall campaign and corruption allegations against Stone, according to court documents.

The jury reached its verdict following an eight day trial before Judge Brantley Starr. Starr had ruled May 5 that a trial was necessary on Carter’s religious bias claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, retaliation claims under the Railway Labor Act, and breach of the duty of fair representation claims.

The jury verdict requires the local to pay $120,000 in lost wages; $30,000 in lost benefits; $250,000 for past pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life; $250,000 for future pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life; $300,000 in punitive damages for her Title VII religious discrimination claim.

The jury ordered the airline to pay $120,000 in lost wages; $30,000 in lost benefits; $250,000 for past pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life; $250,000 for future pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life; and $3,500,000 in punitive damages for her Title VII religious discrimination claim.

The airline vowed to fight the verdict. “Southwest Airlines has a demonstrated history of supporting our Employees’ rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner. We are disappointed with this verdict and plan to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” the company said in a statement.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Inc. and Pryor & Bruce represent Carter. Reed Smith LLP represents Southwest. Adam S. Greenfield and Edward B. Cloutman, both of Dallas, represent the union.

The case is Carter v. Transp. Workers Union Local 556, N.D. Tex., No. 3:17-cv-02278, jury verdict 7/14/22.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com; Peter Hayes in Washington at PHayes@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagán at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com