A federal judge in Wichita, Kan., has refused to reconsider his earlier ruling siding with The Boeing Co. and Spirit AeroSystems in an age discrimination lawsuit brought by former workers in the wake of Boeing’s 2005 sale of its commercial airplane operations in Kansas and Oklahoma.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren said in a ruling handed down March 28 that he reviewed evidence presented by the former Boeing workers and again concluded that their evidence was insufficient to raise a factual dispute for a jury to decide. Melgren first granted summary judgment to the companies last June.
“We are surprised by how long it took,” said Lawrence Williamson, the attorney representing the workers. “We are not surprised by the ruling. It is always a long shot for a court to change its opinion.”
Boeing issued a statement saying it was “very pleased” with Melgren’s latest decision.
“We believed the judge got it right last June with the initial ruling and are gratified the judge confirmed his earlier ruling today,” the company said in an email.
Spirit AeroSystems did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Ninety former Boeing workers sued in December 2005 claiming they lost their jobs because of their age during the divestiture. Their lawsuit was granted conditional class-action status a year later under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. More than 700 additional ex-workers have since asked to join the lawsuit.
Former workers plan to seek a court order allowing them to file an appeal on a class-action basis to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, otherwise workers would have to fight hundreds of individual discrimination lawsuit, Williamson said.
“We believe the evidence shows a corporate culture of age discrimination and we are going to ask higher courts to review that decision,” Williamson said.
Melgren rejected the workers claim that he had failed to take in account in his initial ruling all of the evidence.
Specifically, the judge discounted an email exchange during negotiations between Onyx, the parent company of Spirit AeroSystems which purchased the plants, and its consultants over the pension fund. Melgren found that the emails did not prove age discrimination because the parties to them did not select which workers to hire and did not share their content with those inside the corporate hierarchy at Boeing’s Wichita division.
The judge also discounted a portion a top executive’s deposition where he stated that older workers generally tend to be more expensive because of experience. The statement was made by Jeff Turner, a former Boeing manager and current CEO of Spirit.
“This type of statement, which merely reflects a fact of life and is devoid of any disparaging undertones, does not give rise to inference of age bias,” Melgren wrote.
The worker’s lawsuit cited statements by Turner acknowledging the aerospace giant had concerns about the age of its work force when it was trying to sell those facilities.
Turner told a manager within a year of the divestiture that “Boeing’s work force was getting older and that the managers needed to find ways to do something about it.”
But the judge wrote that when Turner’s comment is viewed “in the correct context, it is clear that it is benign,” something which he reaffirmed in the latest decision.
Melgren wrote in the ruling that Turner’s statement was to ambiguous for jurors to decide that upper management held an age bias.
The workers also lost their argument that Melgren erred in his earlier ruling by not considering that multiple derogatory comments by low-level managers showed a corporate culture of age discrimination.
The judge wrote that the workers failed to establish that the “comments of a handful of low-level managers in a company employing thousands of workers is sufficient to show a corporate policy against older workers.”