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French Flight Attendant Can Sue United in Chicago

CHICAGO (CN) - A fired United Airlines flight attendant can pursue federal discrimination claims against her former employer in Illinois, even though she is a French citizen, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Laurence Rabé was fired after 15 years of service to United because the company says an investigation caught her misusing company travel vouchers. Rabé said the investigation was a pretext because United wanted to fire her in discrimination of her nationality, sexual orientation and age.

A supervisor had told Rabé that it is "not right to be gay," and he suggested suspecting her of being a lesbian, Rabé claims. That supervisor later initiated the travel voucher investigation.

Rabé, who was 40 years old at the time of the firing, was initially stationed in Paris and later Hong Kong. She frequently worked flights between different U.S. destinations, and her contract dictated that employment disputes would be resolved under U.S. law.

United argued that Rabé cannot sue under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Illinois Human Rights Act because the statutes of her contract are not applicable to her as a noncitizen.

An Illinois federal judge agreed and dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, also finding that Rabé's claims were preempted by the Railway Labor Act.

The 7th Circuit reversed both findings on Feb. 28, ruling that employers may agree by contract to extend statutory legal protections to an employee who might not be covered by the statute itself.

"The most reasonable interpretation [Rabé's] employment agreement is that 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," Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court's three-judge panel.

"Even without an attempt to assert a claim directly under the federal statues, the District Court would still have diversity jurisdiction in this particular case," Hamilton continued, noting that the amount of controversy exceeds $75,000 and the case is between U.S. citizen and foreign national.

Rabé's claims are also not preempted by the Railway Labor Act because she asserted rights that are independent of the collective bargaining agreement, the ruling states. Rather than claiming that United violated terms of their agreement or that the agreement was unfair, Rabé claimed that the airline had treated her differently than other employees in terms of their use of company travel vouchers.

The court remanded Rabé's suit for further proceedings on the merits of the federal and state-law discrimination claims.

"We offer no comment on the merits of Rabé's claims except to say that she is entitled to try to prove them on the merits," Hamilton wrote.

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