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FAA agrees to pay $44 million to resolve long-running age discrimination lawsuit

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/28/2021 Ian Duncan
a sign in front of a building: The Federal Aviation Administration building in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP) The Federal Aviation Administration building in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to pay $44 million to resolve a long-standing lawsuit brought by former employees who alleged that their jobs were outsourced because of their ages, a settlement announced Wednesday that their lawyers say is the largest of its kind.

The case was filed in 2005, when the FAA decided to hand over the work of about 2,000 employees, known as flight services specialists, to a private company. FAA officials, including the head of the agency at the time, were open about the aging specialist workforce being a factor in the outsourcing deal, according to evidence presented in the lawsuit.

But the case languished in the courts for years as one judge retired and the law firm that originally represented the employees was closed. With the former FAA employees reaching retirement age, a new team of lawyers began hashing out a settlement with the government last year.

“It has been a long journey, but I am thrilled that justice will finally be served in this case,” Kathleen Breen, one of the affected former employees, said in a statement. “Sixteen years ago, I lost my job due to a discriminatory choice by our federal government, despite our loyalty and commitment to keeping our skies safe. The consequences of that decision are still with so many of us to this day, which is why we never gave up our fight.”

The FAA did not admit wrongdoing and said in a statement that the settlement “speaks for itself.”

The lawsuit initially sought to stop the privatization plan, which involved giving a $1.8 billion contract to Lockheed Martin, a government services firm and weapons maker. When that effort failed, the specialists and their support staff became Lockheed employees. Their pay remained roughly the same, but they lost out on lucrative air traffic control pensions.

Joseph Sellers, a partner at law firm Cohen Milstein, which joined the case in 2016, described the financial harm faced by the former employees as “brutal.”

“Suddenly their pension investment was ripped away from them,” he said.

The oldest Millennials became eligible to sue for age discrimination this year

Recouping that retirement pay became the focus of the lawsuit. The $44 million settlement fund will be shared by 646 former employees or their estates. An additional 25 plaintiffs will have their pensions adjusted upward.

Sellers acknowledged the payouts won’t cover everything the former employees lost, but he said the case was unusual because it was not pursued as a class-action. That meant that even had they won, each of the 671 plaintiffs would have had to have a separate trial to determine what they were owed, potentially extending the case several more years. With the former employees aging, Sellers said it made sense to strike a deal.

“You don’t recover 100 percent when you’re settling a case,” Sellers said. “Our clients faced a tough choice.”

Because the case was not a class-action, the other 1,300 or so former FAA employees who were affected by the outsourcing deal — but were not part of the lawsuit — won’t get anything.

The FAA’s flight services specialists provide weather information and flight planning help to private pilots, but are not involved in air traffic control. The service dates back to the earliest days of flight, celebrating its centenary last year.

But in recent years, demand for the specialists’ work had declined dramatically as much of the information they provided can be found online. By the time the FAA was pursuing the outsourcing deal, it had stopped replacing the specialists as they left.

A 2016 review by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general concluded that the outsourcing effort had largely been a success, saving the FAA about $2 billion over 13 years.

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