A North Texas federal judge ordered Dallas-based Southwest Airlines to reinstate a flight attendant who claimed she was wrongfully fired for expressing her anti-abortion views, but reduced her jury award from $5.3 million to little. more than $800,000 to meet federal limits.
In an order issued Monday, US District Judge Brantley Starr said Southwest must reinstate former flight attendant Charlene Carter, who claimed her firing came after she sent confrontational anti-abortion messages to the former union president.
Starr, who is based in Dallas and was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2019, also reduced the jury’s original $5.3 million in damages to $810,180, including $150,000 in back wages. That’s because federal anti-discrimination law limits the damages companies can pay in such cases.
“The court PROHIBITS defendants from discriminating against Southwest flight attendants based on their religious practices and beliefs, including, but not limited to, those expressed on social media and those related to abortion,” Starr wrote in the ruling.
Carter was fired in March 2017 after sending confrontational emails and social media messages to former flight attendant union president Audrey Stone. Carter called Stone “despicable” for attending the Women’s March on Washington, DC, earlier that year, according to the lawsuit.
“This is what she stood for during her paid leave with others at the Women’s March on DC,” Carter wrote in a Facebook message to Stone, according to the lawsuit. “…You really are despicable in so many ways.”
Carter said Stone and the union should not support an event that included groups like Planned Parenthood, which supports abortion rights.
Stone never responded to his Facebook messages, but after sending several notes, Southwest management told Carter that he needed to attend a mandatory meeting on the subject.
Carter argued that the Railroad Labor Act that governs labor agreements at airlines protects her to engage in “protected speech and activities to oppose, challenge, and defend against [Transport Workers Union] Local 556, President Stone, and union activities.”
In July, a North Texas jury said Southwest Airlines should pay $4.15 million in back wages, pain and suffering and other costs to Carter, and the union was ordered to pay another $1.15 million. Carter was represented by the National Right to Work Committee, an avid anti-union group with a legal team fighting against mandatory union membership and dues.
The National Right to Work Committee said the union violated Carter’s religious freedom by supporting pro-abortion groups and causes.
“Milisecond. Carter’s victory should spark national scrutiny of the government-granted coercive powers of union bosses over workers, especially in the airline and rail industries,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Foundation for the Right to Labor in a statement: “Even after her victory, she and her colleagues at Southwest and other union-controlled airlines may be forced, under the Railroad Labor Law, to pay money to union officials just to keep their jobs.”
Starr also warned the airline and the union not to retaliate against Carter and to post the jury’s verdict in break rooms, on bulletin boards, and to mail it to employees.
Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King said the company plans to appeal the verdict to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Southwest Airlines has a proven track record of supporting our employees’ rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner,” he said in an email. “We are in the process of evaluating the requirements of the recent ruling as we move forward with our plans for an appeal.”