French flight attendant can pursue employment discrimination lawsuit against United in Chicago: Court

 @ibtimes
on March 08 2011 11:41 AM
A United Airlines plane with the Continental Airlines logo on its tail, sits at a gate at O'Hare International airport in Chicago October 1, 2010
A United Airlines plane with the Continental Airlines logo on its tail, sits at a gate at O'Hare International airport in Chicago October 1, 2010 Reuters

A French flight attendant, who was fired by United Airlines, has been allowed to pursue her federal discrimination claims against her former employer, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Laurence Rabé, a French citizen, saw her employment being terminated after 15 years of service because the company said it caught her misusing company-issued travel vouchers.

Rabé, however, has alleged that the company had fired her because it suspected her of being a lesbian. Her supervisor who had initiated the travel voucher probe, had suspected her sexual orientation and had told her that it's not right to be gay, Rabé, in the lawsuit filed in October 2008, has alleged in her complaint, citing discrimination of her nationality, sexual orientation and age.

Rabé's contract allows her to resolve employment disputes under U.S. law but United has claimed that the suit be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. United argued that said she cannot sue under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act do not apply to non-citizens who work outside the U.S. and the Illinois Human Rights Act does not apply to work outside Illinois. The airlines said the federal and state employment discrimination laws do not apply to Rabé because she spent an insignificant time working in Illinois or elsewhere in the U.S.

United also argued that Rabé's claims are precluded by the Railway Labor Act and were subject to collective bargaining. because the statutes of her contract are not applicable to her as a non-citizen.

The district court had ruled in United's favor.

However, a three-judge bench, upon appeal, ruled last week that employers may agree by contract to extend statutory legal protections to an employee who might not be covered by the statute itself.

Judge David Hamilton, who wrote for the bench, said United agreed to application [sic] of the substance of United States law notwithstanding provisions that would otherwise point against its coverage because of Rabé's status as an alien and the changing locations of her work.

The international character of the parties' employment relationship could pose serious complications and uncertainties. Litigating the relevant employment location for employees who work in international transportation can be complicated and expensive, the judge wrote.

United chose to address these complications and uncertainties with a contract that required the employee to agree to be governed by United States law. Rabé agreed to the term, as reflected not only by her signature but also by the required handwritten note saying that she accepted the choice of United States law and the choice of forum. The most reasonable interpretation of this employment agreement is that United agreed to application of the substance of United States law notwithstanding provisions that would otherwise point against its coverage because of Rabé's status as an alien and the changing locations of her work, he said.

The judge also noted that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction under its federal question jurisdiction because the plaintiff has asserted a colorable claim for coverage directly under the terms of the federal statutes, and on remand the court will have supplemental jurisdiction over the implicit state law claims for breach of contract and/or promissory estoppel.

And even without an attempt to assert a claim directly under the federal statutes, the district court would still have diversity jurisdiction in this particular case as the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 and case is between citizen of a state and a citizen of a foreign state, the court ruled.

The court also ruled that Rabé's claims are not preempted by the Railway Labor Act because she asserted rights that are independent of the collective bargaining agreement. They arise from her individual employment contract with United...and in which United and she agreed that their relationship should be governed by United States law, including, as we view it, federal employment discrimination laws, the court said.

Given the nature of Rabé's discrimination claims, their resolution does not appear likely to require the court to interpret the collective bargaining agreement as a potentially dispositive matter, it added.

Rabé's claims are also not preempted or precluded by the RLA as she has alleged that the travel-voucher policy was enforced against her in a discriminatory manner, but her claims do not call the policy itself into dispute, it concluded.

The court did not look into the merits of Rabé's claims and reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

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