WICHITA, Kan. - The remaining age-discrimination claims against Boeing Co. and Spirit AeroSystems were tossed out by a federal judge Wednesday, a major blow to a lawsuit that's spanned nine years.
When Boeing sold its commercial aircraft operations in Wichita to the parent company of Spirit AeroSystems in 2005, 90 former Boeing workers claimed they lost their jobs because of their age.
In a scathing decision, U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren said he was dismissing the claims of the remaining 26 plaintiffs as a sanction for their refusal to obey a court order that they give their tax returns to the companies. The judge also chided their attorney for choosing "not to even attend" a hearing on the companies' request to summarily rule in their favor.
"This inaction exemplifies a pattern of nonparticipation that leads the Court to find that a lesser sanction would not deter further noncompliance," Melgren wrote.
The decision is a final judgment with prejudice, meaning that if it stands, the workers would not be able to file another lawsuit over the same claims.
James Gore, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he planned to appeal the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and would also ask the judge to reconsider. "We believe the decisions are wrong and we will do everything we can to correct that and get it reversed," he said.
Meanwhile, Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said in an email, "We welcome the judge's decision and this closes the chapter on the case."
Spirit AeroSystems said in an emailed statement that the court has consistently ruled in its favor, and the company would "vigorously defend itself" if there is an appeal.
"Spirit does not discriminate in its employment practices, and is an equal opportunity employer," the company said. "We take that responsibility very seriously."
Gore also took issue with the judge's contention that he chose to not attend the hearing. Gore said he notified the court that he wouldn't be able to attend weeks and days before the hearing - even the day of, he said. He said he was dealing with the death of the grandmother who had raised him. The other plaintiffs' attorney on the case, Lawrence Williamson, was dealing with an ongoing, debilitating illness that kept him from traveling, Gore said.
"It wasn't like we maliciously just failed to show up," Gore said.
Gore also argued that the plaintiffs' authorizations for the release of tax return information were enough to comply with the court order, a contention the judge rejected.
The lawsuit was initially filed as a class action in December 2005, with Melgren granting summary judgment in the companies' favor on the class-action claims in 2010. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in 2012.
The following year, an amended complaint was filed on behalf of 87 workers alleging individual counts of age discrimination. It was whittled down to 26 plaintiffs as some former workers settled out of court, died or dropped out.