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First Circuit says that a jury must decide whether skycap company unlawfully retaliated against skycap because he complained about violations of wage & hour laws

Yesterday, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a reasonable jury could conclude that Flight Services & Systems, Inc. unlawfully retaliated against a former skycap, Joseph Travers, because he complained about Flight Services’ violation of wage & hour laws. Travers had served as a named representative of a class of skycaps who sued Flight Services for, among other things, failure to pay minimum wage. By all accounts, Travers was the lead named plaintiff in that class action.

In response to the class action, the CEO of Flight Services told Travers’ supervisor to “get rid of” Travers and “talk [Travers] into dropping the lawsuit.” Travers’ supervisor told Travers to be careful because “the company would be coming after him.” Flight Services subsequently did “get rid of” Travers when it fired him in September of 2010.

Despite this directive from the CEO to “get rid of” Travers because of the class action lawsuit Travers spearheaded, the trial court in this case found that no jury could reasonably find that Flight Services fired Travers in retaliation for his opposition to the company’s violations of wage & hour laws. The trial court held that a reasonable juror would have to accept the company’s explanation that it fired Travers because it received a complaint that he solicited a tip from a customer, in violation of company policy. The First Circuit held that the trial court was wrong for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the CEO, even though he was not directly involved in the decision to fire Travers, let his subordinates know that he wanted Travers fired because of the class action lawsuit.

Additionally, Travers presented evidence that Flight Services did not fire another skycap when it received a complaint about that skycap soliciting a tip. Flight Services argued that the complaint against Travers differed from the complaint against this other skycap. It reasoned that the customer himself complained about Travers soliciting tips from him while only the daughter of the customer who was allegedly solicited for tips complained about the other skycap. The First Circuit rejected this argument because a jury could conclude that Flight Services just came up with this distinction between first-hand and second-hand complaints after Travers filed his retaliation lawsuit against the company. There was no evidence that Flight Services actually recognized a difference between first-hand and second-hand customer complaints when it enforced its no-tip-solicitation policy.