A federal judge has ruled that Southwest flight attendant Charlene Carter’s federal lawsuit, in which she is suing Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 556 officials and Southwest for illegally firing her over her religious opposition to abortion, will continue at the US District Court in Dallas. Carter is receiving free legal representation from National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation staff attorneys.
District Court Judge Brantley Starr ruled late last week denying the TWU union’s and Southwest Airlines’ motions for summary judgment, which would have given the union and airline an early victory in the case. Starr affirmed in the decision that the case must move to trial because “genuine disputes of material fact preclude summary judgment” on all claims.
Flight Attendant Called Out Union Officials for Their Political Activities
As a Southwest employee, Carter joined TWU Local 556 in September 1996. A pro-life Christian, she resigned her membership in September 2013 after learning that her union dues were being used to promote social causes that violate her conscience and religious beliefs.
Carter resigned from union membership but was still forced to pay fees to TWU Local 556 as a condition of her employment. State Right to Work laws do not protect her from forced union fees because airline and railway employees are covered by the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA). The RLA allows union officials to have a worker fired for refusing to pay union dues or fees. But it does protect the rights of employees to remain nonmembers of the union, to criticize the union and its leadership, and advocate for changing the union’s current leadership.
In January 2017, Carter learned that Audrey Stone, the union president, and other TWU Local 556 officials used union dues to attend the “Women’s March on Washington D.C.,” which was sponsored by political groups she opposed, including Planned Parenthood. Carter’s lawsuit alleges that Southwest knew of the TWU Local 556 activities and participation in the Women’s March and helped accommodate TWU Local 556 members wishing to attend the March by allowing them to give their work shifts to other employees not attending that protest.
Carter, a vocal critic of Stone and the union, took to social media to challenge Stone’s leadership and to express support for a recall effort that would remove Stone from power. Carter also sent Stone a message affirming her commitment to both the recall effort and a National Right to Work law after union officials sent an email to employees telling them to oppose Right to Work.
After sending Stone that email, Carter was notified by Southwest managers that they needed to have a mandatory meeting as soon as possible about “Facebook posts they had seen.” During this meeting, Southwest presented Carter screenshots of her pro-life posts and messages and questioned why she made them.
Carter explained her religious beliefs and opposition to the union’s political activities. Carter said that, by participating in the Women’s March, President Stone and TWU Local 556 members purported to be representing all Southwest flight attendants. Southwest authorities told Carter that President Stone claimed to be harassed by Carter’s messages. A week after this meeting, Southwest fired Carter.
In 2017, Carter filed her federal lawsuit with help from Foundation staff attorneys to challenge the firing as an abuse of her rights, alleging she lost her job because of her religious beliefs, standing up to TWU Local 556 officials, and criticizing the union’s political activities and how it spent employees’ dues and fees.
Federal Judge: Flight Attendant’s Claims Against Southwest and Union Should Go to Trial
Notably, the District Court’s decision tosses arguments made by Southwest’s lawyers that Carter lacks a “private right of action” to enforce her fights under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), and arguments that her case concerned only a “minor” dispute over interpretation of the union contract that is outside the purview of the District Court.
The District Court’s ruling instead recognizes that the RLA’s explicit protection for employees’ free association rights means that Carter, who was fired for opposing the union based on its politics, “does have a private right of action” under the RLA.
The District Court re-affirmed its prior ruling that classifying the suit as a “minor dispute” is inappropriate, because “Carter had plausibly alleged that she engaged in protected speech and activity” and those claims “do not rest on and require interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.”.
“[H]aving determined that Carter has a private right of action under [the RLA] and that this case concerns a major dispute,” the court ruled that a genuine dispute of material fact precludes summary judgment on this claim.
The decision also rejects an argument by Southwest and the union that the District Court is bound by an arbitrator’s findings. Such “issue preclusion” is inappropriate in this case because, while arbitrators are competent to resolve factual questions, they are “not competent to resolve the ultimate legal questions of a case,” the decision says.
“This decision is an important step towards long overdue justice for Charlene. The ruling rejects several attempts by Southwest and union officials to deny Ms. Carter’s right to bring this case in federal court and enforce her RLA-protected speech and association rights,” commented National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix. “Further, the decision acknowledges that, at its core, this case is about an individual worker’s right to object to how forced union dues and fees are spent by union officials to take positions that are completely contrary to the beliefs of many workers forced under the union’s so-called ‘representation.’”
“The Foundation is proud to stand with Carlene Carter and will continue fighting for her rights for as long as is necessary,” Mix added.