Judge: Pilots' union didn't discriminate vs senior flight instructors in agreeing with United to change rules

By Scott Holland | Jun 6, 2018

A federal judge has handed a win to a pilots’ union facing an age discrimination lawsuit from three of its members, who accused their union of being “complicit” in working with United Airlines to impose new standards the plaintiffs said were intended to flush out older workers.

U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso issued an opinion June 4 in Chicago granting summary judgment in favor of Air Line Pilots Association International, and denying a partial motion for summary judgment from ALPA members Douglas Bader, Charles Doyle and Ralph J. Rina, who said the union violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and also committed breach of duty of fair representation under the Railway Labor Act.

According to Alonso’s opinion, the men were pilot instructors and evaluators for Continental Airlines, positions they held legally, despite federal law prohibiting them from working as commercial pilots after turning 65. Their dispute originated with the 2010 merger between Continental and United Airlines, part of which included a new ALPA agreement requiring instructor/evaluators to pilot commercial flights at least 30 days a year.

A letter of agreement dated Dec. 18, 2012, established a 12-month transition period before the new rules took effect. After December 2013, United began removing pilots from the seniority list when they turned 65. In June 2013, Bader, Doyle and Rina all asked for their seniority to be restored and to have their retirement date rescinded, a request the union denied. All three retired later that year, then sued the following April.

David A. Axelrod  

Alonso said both sides offered flawed arguments in seeking summary judgment, failing to cite the case record or necessary evidence, offering irrelevant facts or evasive responses.

The pilots said United’s 12-month transition period shows the age limitation is arbitrary because it proves requiring instructor/evaluators to fly “does not improve operational safety” and that the ALPA agreeing to the terms would make it “complicit in allowing unqualified instructors/evaluators to perform the critical function of training and evaluating pilots flying revenue flights.”

However, the union insisted the policy wasn’t a critical safety measure, but something “deeply engrained in the ethos of United’s training department since at least 1989,” Alonso wrote, explaining his focus must be on whether there was age discrimination, not if a particular policy promoted better operational safety.

He further explained how the ability to fly regularly scheduled commercial flights is not only limited by the federal age regulation, but “a variety of other factors such as the requisite prior service and training and medical status … There are even subcategories with the medical status category that are considered including vision, hearing, mental health and neurologic health.”

The issue, Alonso said, is whether the ALPA had a good reason for allowing United’s requirements into the newly structured bargaining agreement. To the extent the plaintiffs made that argument, he noted, they asserted ALPA was responsible for that part of the contract, despite not showing sufficient admissible evidence the union had to convince the airline to preserve a policy it enacted in 1989. The pilots cited conversations, emails and contract proposals, but Alonso said the submissions amount to inadmissible hearsay and unsupported speculation.

He further said the pilots failed to show how an ALPA report to Congress in November 2011 endorsing the importance of simulated flight training is inconsistent with agreeing to the flight requirement standard in the new contract. They also failed to show how anyone outside the age-protected class fared more favorably in union negotiations.

Alonso did side with the pilots on their breach of the duty of fair representation claims where timely, but agreed with the union’s position that it agreed to United’s terms “based on the legitimate interest in having (instructor/evaluators) receive the best possible training.”

That a union decision negatively affected some members in an attempt to serve the greater good, Alonso said, “does not mean that ALPA acted in an unlawful and discriminatory manner.”

Alonso’s ruling effectively terminated the civil complaint.

Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys David A. Axelrod, of David A. Axelrod & Associates P.C., of Chicago, and Joe Patrick Martin, of Martin Global Counsel LLC, of Alexandria, Va.

ALPA is represented by attorneys Rami N. Fakhouri and Andrew L. Goldman, of the firm of Goldman Ismail Tomaselli Brennan & Baum LLP, of Chicago, and attorneys from the ALPA International Legal Department.

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David A. Axelrod & Associates Goldman Ismail Tomaselli Brennan & Baum LLP U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois United Airlines

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