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Southwest Airlines Employee Wins Verdict in Anti-Abortion Related Claim

Charlene Carter worked as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines from 1996 through 2017. Carter was a member of the Transport Workers Union of America ("Union"), but she left the Union in 2013. She objected to paying the Union's required fees because of its "political, ideological, and other non-bargaining spending." She openly expressed her disagreement with the Union's leadership. In 2017, Carter learned that some Union members were participating in and supporting the Women's March in Washington D.C. and that Planned Parenthood was a sponsor. Carter opposes abortion based on her religious beliefs. Carter expressed her strong feelings about abortion and the Union's March participation on her personal Facebook page and on other pages related to recall of the Union’s leadership. She also sent graphic videos of aborted fetuses and other hostile messages directly to the Union president. Southwest set up a meeting to discuss Carter's Facebook posts. Carter explained that the Union did not represent her and other members' anti-abortion views. Southwest terminated her employment because of the videos and pictures that Carter posted on Facebook. The airline asserted Carter was "identifiable" as an airline employee, and she represented the airline in a way that was "disparaging." Southwest said she violated the company's "Workplace Bullying and Hazing Policy" and its "Social Media Policy."

A Texas federal jury reached a verdict against the airline and the Union. The jury found both entities discriminated against Carter based on her religious beliefs in violation of Title VII. Southwest failed to accommodate Carter's religious beliefs, and the Union treated her less favorably than other employees. The jury awarded Carter $850,000 in compensatory damages, $300,000 in punitive damages against the Union, and $3.5 million in punitive damages against the airlines. Title VII does place a $300,000 cap on compensatory and punitive damages. The Richmond Times-Dispatch noted Carter engaged in disrespectful posts for years without any repercussions. Southwest only reacted after she posted about abortion.