Supreme Court upholds $45 million fine against airline pilots union over 'sickout'

On February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving a $45.5 million fine levied against the Allied Pilots Association as a result of a sickout held against American Airlines.

In denying certiorari, the court rejected an appeal by the Allied Pilots Association, representing American's 10,500 pilots, and its president, Rich LaVoy, and vice president, Brian Mayhew, at the time of the sickout.

The award was assessed because the union was found to have ignored a federal judge's order to cease a February 1999 pilot sickout that was ruled illegal.

The 10-day sickout canceled nearly 6,700 flights and cost the airline more than $225 million. Pilots launched the labor disruption to protest American's acquisition of smaller Reno Air, whose lower-paid pilots were seen by the union as a threat to job security.

The amount of the award was intended to reflect the cost to American between the judge's issuance of the order to cease the action and the actual end of the sickout. A U.S. appeals court based in New Orleans upheld the award in September.

The union appealed to the Supreme Court, saying such a civil contempt case involving a complex injunction, disputed factual issues and a serious sanction should be decided in accordance with basic due process principles, and not through the expedited procedures of a summary nature. But the justices sided with the airline, declining to review the case.

"We are disappointed, of course, but this decision was not unexpected," the union said in a statement. "On a daily basis, your union continues to operate and is attending to matters that are vital to the entire membership."

With this judgment, other unions that operate under the Railway Labor Act maybe subject to contempt fines if disputes are found to minor grievances instead of major.

"This case sets a disturbing precedent for all labor organizations under the Railway Labor Act," said BLE President Ed Dubroski. "If conservative courts begin levying large judgments against unions and their officers, union activism may spiral downward. There are few officers and unions who could afford such a costly judgment."

In the APA-American case, the rank-and-file membership may be liable for whatever portion of the $45 million judgment that the parent union lacks the funds to pay.

2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers