A fired flight attendant who worked for defunct ExpressJet Airlines is asking the Supreme Court to review a 6th Circuit decision that didn’t allow her to sue for requiring her to serve alcohol to passengers even though she’s Muslim.
ExpressJet was a regional carrier owned by United Airlines that had been a part of Continental, inherited from the original mess of airlines acquired by Texas Air in the mid-1980s (that included Eastern and People Express in addition to Continental). They were spun off in 2002, sold to Atlantic Southeast a decade ago, and then reacquired in 2017. United ceased down the Embraer ERJ-145 operation at the end of last month.
The regional carrier no longer flies, but its corporate affairs – including this potential Supreme Court case – continue. The case poses two interesting questions:
- Does the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline-union relations and requires that disputes go to arbitration, trump the right to sue in the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
- Does requiring an airline to re-open a union contract constitute an undue hardship that would exempt them from making a religious accommodation for a flight attendant over serving alcohol?
While the flight attendant claims the airline provided an accommodation by having another crewmember serve alcoholic drinks to passengers united a “bigoted co-worker” complained, the airline says they can’t actually make another flight attendant take on extra duties under their collective bargaining agreement. A complaint they received put a stop to the accommodation, because it infringed on the rights of the flight attendant’s colleagues under the CBA.
In her petition for a writ of certiorari, Charee Stanley said the Sixth Circuit erred when it found that the Railway Labor Act, which compels arbitration for rail and airline employees, overrules Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The RLA’s arbitrators can only iron out contract disputes, and the law was not intended to box out federal civil rights claims like hers, she said.
…Stanley, who started at ExpressJet in 2013 not long after she converted to Islam, said that when she first raised concerns about preparing and selling alcohol due to her religion, the airline had another flight attendant prepare the drinks so she wouldn’t have to, her petition said.
But after just two and a half months of this, the airline quit offering the accommodations “following complaints from a bigoted co-worker” and eventually fired her, according to her petition.
If the Court takes up the petition we’ll get an interesting decision on how federal labor law interacts with federal discrimination law. So far ExpressJet has prevailed at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (which dismissed the claim) and the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which supported the belief that the RLA arbitration clause is controlling and that ExpressJet’s CBA wouldn’t allow an accommodation).