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2nd Circuit Sides With Airline in Seniority Tiff

(CN) - The Second Circuit tossed a lawsuit filed by four flight attendants who claimed their union failed to grant them seniority after their employer merged with American Airlines.

The Feb. 16 ruling upheld a district court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed against American Airlines and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

The flight attendants, all U.S. Airways employees who had previously worked for TWA, had balked at their placement on a restructured seniority list after their U.S. Airways merged with the American in 2013.

In their complaint, plaintiffs Dixie Daniels, Colleen Hawk, Merry Larson and James Gordon Tuller claimed they were unfairly "endtailed" by the airline when they were moved down to the bottom of the company's seniority list.

The move "erased nearly thirty years" of seniority the plaintiffs had built up since their employment with TWA, and put them at risk losing the favorable assignments and other benefits that come with prime placement on the list, they claim.

Though the list was originally established in 2001 when American acquired TWA, it did not become actionable until 2007 when Congress passed the McCaskill-Bond Act, requiring "the integration of seniority lists in a fair and equitable manner."

Association of Professional Flight Attendants officials argued that the plaintiffs placement on the consolidated seniority list should be based on their original TWA hire date.

But they ultimately agreed to a provision that only credited the plaintiffs and their colleagues with service time they'd accrued since becoming post-merger employees of American, the decision says.

The matter was further complicated by American's 2013 merger with U.S. Air, the plaintiffs said.

That union resulted in a "Merger Transition Agreement" that barred reordering of each airline's respective lists before fusing them, leaving the plaintiffs even lower on a list only made longer by the addition of US Airways' employees, they claimed.

The flight attendants sued, but a federal judge concluded the plaintiffs did not properly prove their case under federal Rule of Civil Procedure.

On Wednesday, the majority on a Second Circuit panel upheld that decision, finding that neither the airline nor the union violated their duties to the flight attendants by failing to reorder their seniority in the face of the newly-enacted McCaskill-Bond.

The opinion, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier, states the passage of the law did not require American Airlines to go back and reorder the seniority list that was previously established when they acquired TWA.

The act's "basic rule" only required them to integrate the seniority of newly-arrived employees from U.S. Air into their master list, Lohier wrote.

The language of McCaskill-Bond is "unfortunate" for the plaintiffs Loheir conceded, since its passage was "prompted in part by the plight of the flight attendants who were endtailed" in the 2001 TWA merger.

Nonetheless, the law was not passed retroactively, and the plaintiffs can't claim a violation of rights that didn't exist at the time of the alleged violation, the ruling states.

"[McCaskill-Bond] therefore 'did nothing for the very group ... whose misfortunes had given it life,'" Loheir wrote, quoting the original complaint.

Los Angeles attorney Robert Siegel, who represented American Airlines in the appeal, called the ruling "a good, useful decision for lawyers."

"My client ... has no obligation to go back and re-do one of the lists that was formulated over a decade ago," he said during an interview with Courthouse News.

The Second Circuit also rejected the plaintiffs' claim that the union wrongfully "failed to [equally] promote the aggregate welfare of all [of] its members," stating that the union's conduct did not violate the legally accepted definition of "bad faith."

In order to have breached its duty to the flight attendants, the union would have had to "act with an improper intent, purpose or motive" and conduct itself with "fraud, dishonesty and other intentionally misleading conduct," Loheir wrote.

Instead, the opinion says, they simply avoided violating McCaskill-Bond by ensuring that incoming U.S. Air flight attendants were properly integrated into the seniority list without losing their service time.

The fact that they did not insist upon the re-ordering of the American list as it existed before the merger "was not irrational and arbitrary" and did not show bad faith towards the TWA transfers, the ruling said.

The judges also pointed out that moving the TWA employees up in the ranks could simply have exposed the airline and the union to similar claims of unfairness by U.S. Air employees - in other words, someone had to be last on the list, and the union did not arbitrarily choose the plaintiffs to occupy this position.

"With the understanding that the unions were required to integrate the seniority lists, no one has identified for us an alternative method of doing so that would not "discriminate" among some group of union members," Loheir wrote.

New Jersey attorney Z. Lance Samay, who represented the flight attendants, said he was "very disappointed by the court's ruling."

"We are in the process of studying [the decision] in order to determine the appropriate course of action in relation to that ruling," he told Courthouse News.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants was represented by John West of Washington, D.C. firm Bredhoff and Kaiser. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

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