A Texas federal jury awarded a former flight attendant for Southwest Airlines Co. $5.1 million after finding the airline and its flight attendant union discriminated and retaliated against her for her beliefs about abortion.
The jury deliberated for 10 hours following a weeklong trial before returning its verdict in favor of former flight attendant, Charlene Carter. The jury found Southwest and the flight attendant union, Transport Workers Union of America Local 556, retaliated against Carter under the Railway Labor Act, discriminated against her based on her religious beliefs and failed to accommodate those beliefs in violation of Title 7.
Additionally, the jury found the union failed to fairly represent Carter.
Carter was awarded $300,000 total in lost wages and benefits for her claims against Southwest and Local 556, as well as $1 million in damages total for her past and future pain and suffering. The jury also awarded her $3.5 million in punitive damages against Southwest and $300,000 in punitive damages against the union.
The jury suggested that the court award Carter $400,000 total in front pay damages, but the court will ultimately decide that amount at a later date.
Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which represented Carter in her lawsuit, called Thursday's verdict a "tremendous victory" in a statement sent to Law360.
"This is a tremendous victory for Charlene Carter, who has been fighting for years for justice following her illegal termination at the hands of TWU union bosses and Southwest officials who went along with the union's attempt to have her fired," he said. "The National Right to Work Foundation exists to help individuals like Charlene stand up to union bullies, and we're proud to have helped win this verdict."
Southwest told Law360 in a statement it is disappointed with the verdict and plans to appeal it.
"Southwest Airlines has a demonstrated history of supporting its employees' rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner," the airline said.
Adam Greenfield of Cloutman & Greenfield PLLC, representing Local 556, contends the facts in Carter's lawsuit don't support the jury's verdict and suggested the jury may have misunderstood the court's instructions. He added the union looks forward to appealing the verdict as well.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Carter asked the jury to award her at least $5.3 million in damages against Southwest and Local 556. The airline and union, meanwhile, argued they owed Carter nothing because her messages were harassing and against Southwest's conduct policies.
Carter claimed she was fired over Facebook messages she sent her union president about her opposition to the use of union funds to help members attend the Planned Parenthood-sponsored January 2017 Women's March in Washington, D.C. In those messages, she called the president "despicable" and said abortion was murder. She also sent a video of purportedly aborted fetuses.
The union president reported her messages to Southwest, which fired Carter in 2017.
Carter had been a flight attendant for Southwest since 1996, and she was a union member until she resigned in 2013 following a leadership turnover in the union she didn't support. She often posted on Facebook publicly and in a flight attendant group criticizing the union's actions, according to court documents.
She would also send the union's then-new president, Audrey Stone, Facebook messages criticizing her leadership and the union, which she says Stone never responded to.
At trial, Carter argued her history of anti-union speech made her a target of Stone and union supporters since at least 2014, and that Stone's reporting of Carter's anti-abortion messages was a product of that animosity. Jurors were shown evidence of email chains in which union members frequently mocked Carter and her beliefs. Stone was copied on the email chains but never commented.
Southwest and Local 556 argued Carter's history of anti-union speech proved she wasn't fired for expressing her beliefs about abortion but for sending the video of purportedly aborted fetuses, which they claim crossed a line. They argued she was fired for the harassing video and not the accompanying message on union activity.
Carter is represented by Matthew B. Gilliam of National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Inc. and Bobby G. Pryor and Matthew D. Hill of Pryor & Bruce.