Firing Flight Attendants Who Watched iPad Could Cost United $2 Million

Ruben Lee, center, with fellow flight attendants during an earlier part of his United Airlines career.
Ruben Lee, center, with fellow flight attendants during an earlier part of his United Airlines career. Facebook
Earlier this year, after a jury awarded $800,000 to veteran United flight attendants Ruben Lee and Jeanne Stroup, fired in 2013 for watching a video on an iPad for approximately fifteen minutes and failing to wear aprons during one flight, attorney David Lane, who represents them, predicted that this dollar amount could eventually double.

Turns out his forecast may have been conservative. This week, U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel upped the damage award by nearly $620,000, taking the total over $1.4 million. And that doesn't include attorneys' fees for Lane's firm, Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, which, by Lane's calculation, will likely add at least another $500,000. That would bring the award to around $2 million.

The key to this boost, Lane says, is that Daniel found United's sacking of flight attendants with more than seventy years of combined experience to have been "willful." And that single word could prove plenty expensive.

Speaking to Westword in March about the case, Lane made the same charge. "We're not alleging United has a pattern and practice of age discrimination," he conceded. "But in this particular case, they tried to make an example out of a couple of older flight attendants, and it backfired on them."

The complaint is accessible below, along with the just-released damage order, and it outlines the stellar careers of Stroup and Lee. She spent 35 years at United, starting out in 1978 as a reservation representative and earning a promotion to the technical-support team before becoming a flight attendant in 1984. During the years that followed, Stroup worked approximately 30,000 flight hours over 29 years, missing only one check-in along the way despite the occasional weather challenges in Denver. Furthermore, she never received a single customer complaint and wasn't disciplined by United until she was sacked.

Lee's career at United was similarly impressive and even longer than Stroup's. Like her, he had an unmarked record when it came to customer service and in-house discipline during forty years with the airline. He also received a commendation for his actions during a 1974 flight that had to make an emergency landing in Washington, D.C., and a silver chalice commemorating his participation in the Magnificent 700 Road Show, a traveling troupe that entertained folks at flight-attendant meetings. At various points, he served as a model for new flight-attendant uniforms and was a regular on charter flights for the Denver Broncos during a period when the squad won two Super Bowls.

A more recent photo of Ruben Lee. - FACEBOOK
A more recent photo of Ruben Lee.
Nonetheless, the pair were both canned after they were observed on a flight from Denver to San Francisco watching an iPad and serving sans apron — infractions the lawsuit deems "trivial."

According to Lane, United has no system for determining discipline levels for rule-breaking: "It was solely at their discretion — in the eye of any individual supervisor how serious any violation was. And that was part of our case."

Lane put a supervisor on the witness stand, he recalled, "and I said, 'In the hierarchy of rule violations, these are pretty ticky-tacky.' He said, 'I don't agree.' I said, 'For example, watching an iPad for a few minutes is certainly less serious than lighting a campfire in the bathroom of a flight when it's at 35,000 feet.' And he said, 'No, I disagree with that.' I said, 'Seriously? You think lighting a campfire in the bathroom is as serious as watching an iPad for a few minutes?' And he said, 'Yes.'"

How did the jury respond to this assertion? "Oh, my God," Lane replied. "They just rolled their eyes and sat back in their seats."

The $800,000 jury finding in the matter was just the beginning, in Lane's view.

"In an age-discrimination case, the jury awards only back pay," he pointed out. "It's up to the judge to award front pay. So, in other words, the jury awards damages from the time of trial back to the time of termination" — a little less than five years, in this case. "But the judge decides going forward how much they are out."

Daniel has now done so — but Lane stresses that the case isn't over. An additional hearing has been called to determine legal fees, and after that, United will have between one and two months to decide whether it wants to appeal. Such an action wouldn't surprise Lane, who says the airline has fought Lee and Stroup "every step of the way" in an attempt, he feels, to prevent a possible flood of lawsuits from other flight attendants pink-slipped for minor reasons. He thinks that may explain why United has thus far ignored invitations from his firm to consider negotiating a settlement.

As for Lee and Stroup, Lane says they're "delighted" by the recent development, which they see as vindication for a battle that's already gone on for half a decade and could continue for a year or more should United choose to appeal. After all, he says, the sudden loss of employment to which they'd devoted their careers left them in a dire financial situation.

In the meantime, Lane maintains that the judge's ruling sends a message to United and other companies looking for excuses to can older workers who likely cost them more than new hires: "If you engage in this kind of conduct, it's going to cost you."

Click to read Jeanne Stroup and Ruben Lee v. United Airlines and the order on damages.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts