The United Airlines class action lawsuit that attracted national attention this week was filed in Dallas-Fort Worth’s backyard — and also involves Texas-based parties and attorneys.
Filed Monday in Fort Worth federal court, six employees of United Airlines allege that the company’s mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy discriminates against them and others who seek an exemption for religious or medical reasons. The class action group, which includes two captains, an aircraft technician, a station operations representative, a customer service representative and a flight attendant, predominantly reside in Tarrant County.
Before Friday, United was requiring all of its employees to have received at least their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. After the plaintiff employees submitted requests for accommodations, approval of their requests came by way of an imposed, indefinite medical or unpaid leave, the lawsuit says. David Castillo, the aircraft technician, is waiting for a medical exemption to be approved, but he anticipates the airline will issue the same “unpaid leave” accommodation, the lawsuit says.
U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman was supposed to hear arguments from both sides Friday afternoon to determine whether he would enjoin United from putting employees with exemptions on unpaid leave, but he deferred that hearing until Oct. 8 after the parties worked out an agreement in the courthouse instead, which they read in the record. Lawyers for United and the employees agreed that no non-vaccinated employee who submitted a religious or medical accommodation request to the airline by Sept. 23 would be terminated or — in the instance of those already approved — placed on unpaid leave until Oct. 15, two-and-a-half weeks past the original Sept. 27 deadline to receive the first dose of the vaccine. The stipulation also says employees who are yet to comply with the vaccination requirement have until Oct. 15.
Judge Pittman gave both sides until Monday at 5 p.m. to agree on a briefing schedule for the upcoming hearing.
Bob Wiegand, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the Oct. 8 TRO hearing will now determine whether the court will bar United from firing religious or medically exempt employees or putting them on unpaid leave throughout the life of the lawsuit. He described Friday’s agreement as “a complete and total victory for the plaintiffs and those they want to represent as a class.”
In a statement issued to The Texas Lawbook, a United spokesperson said safety remains the airline’s highest priority.
“We will continue to vigorously defend our policy,” the statement said. “Vaccine requirements have been around for decades and have served to keep airline employees and customers safe. And with the pandemic continuing to kill more than 2,000 people every day, we remain convinced that our vaccine policy saves lives. As of today, excluding employees who have submitted exemptions, 97% of United’s U.S. employees are vaccinated.”
According to the lawsuit, the religiously exempt employees in the group — some of whom are against receiving vaccines in general — believe the Covid-19 vaccines were developed using aborted fetal tissue, which goes against their religious beliefs. The medically exempt employees in the group have varied medical reasons for not receiving the vaccine. Seth Turnburgh, one of the pilots, has relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis, and his doctor advised him not to get the Covid-19 vaccine because it could trigger issues with his immune system. The lawsuit also says the stress Turnburgh is currently undergoing about the prospect of being placed on unpaid leave increases his risk of an MS relapse.
Wiegand is a partner at the Dallas firm Stewart Wiegand & Owens, a five-lawyer litigation firm that focuses on business disputes, employment law and healthcare litigation defense. Wiegand’s law partner, Melissa Swindle, is also on the case.
Others on the plaintiffs’ legal team include Cedar Hill lawyer John Sullivan of SL Law and Washington, D.C., lawyers Annika Boone, Brian Field, Gene Schaerr, Kenneth Klukowski and Mark Paoletta of Schaerr Jaffe.
United hired Houston lawyers Esteban Shardonofsky and Vanessa Rogers of Seyfarth Shaw, Fort Worth lawyer Russell Cawyer of Kelly Hart & Hallman and Jones Day lawyers Donald Munro and Jordan Matthews of the firm’s Washington, D.C., and Chicago offices.
The case is 4:21-cv-01074-P in the Fort Worth division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.