Section Review

DLC's Victory in Sprague v. United Air Lines

Jane K. Alper is a senior attorney for the Disability Law Center.

On Monday, Nov. 25, 2002, John Sprague began working as a line mechanic for United Air Lines at JFK International Airport in New York City. It's a job he'd been waiting for for more than five years.

John Sprague is profoundly deaf. At an early age he developed a fascination with airplanes after seeing his father off on frequent business trips. During his freshman year at Gallaudet (the only university in the world that caters primarily to deaf students) he met a classmate who was a licensed pilot. It had never dawned on John that a deaf person could fly a plane, and the encounter changed his life. He withdrew from Gallaudet and began taking classes at Wentworth Institute in Boston, which offered a program in aviation mechanics. He also began taking flying lessons at a private airport in Taunton, doing odd jobs around the airfield to pay for his lessons. He obtained his pilot's license and, with the assistance of Greater Boston Legal Services, which intervened when the FAA threatened to deny him a mechanic's license because of his deafness, be became a licensed mechanic as well. He worked successfully as a mechanic for small private airlines for more than 15 years, earning a number of awards for his achievements.

In the early '90s, he decided to try to get a job with a major airline. After researching various airlines and perfecting job-seeking techniques, he decided to focus on getting a job with United. He visited United's operations at Logan Airport, where the staff members were so impressed with him that they recommended that he be hired. In April 1997 United offered him a job as a line mechanic at Logan. Three days before he was scheduled to start work, he received a call telling him that the offer had been rescinded. Someone higher up in management who knew nothing about Sprague except that he was deaf decided that it would be unsafe for a deaf mechanic to work on the tarmac around moving vehicles. Sprague tried to convince United to change its mind, suggesting a number of devices and accommodations, including equipment that converted sound to vibrations, new hearing aids and assignment to the midnight shift when airport traffic was greatly reduced. United rejected his suggestions out of hand. Instead, United offered Sprague a job working in their engine repair shop in San Francisco. He finally accepted that job and worked in San Francisco for 15 months, commuting to Massachusetts on weekends to be with his wife and two young daughters.

Soon after United withdrew the job offer at Logan, Sprague contacted DLC, and we filed suit against United in federal district court. When it became clear that United would not back down, making a trial inevitable, we recruited Harold Lichten and Shannon Liss-Riordan of Pyle, Rome, Lichten & Ehrenberg to co-counsel the case.

In the months before trial, United repeatedly revised its reasons for withdrawing the job offer. It soon became evident that Sprague was in fact able to perceive sounds in the work environment. United then changed tack, claiming that Sprague would be unable to perform many job functions that required radio or intercom communications. However, that claim was undermined by subsequent events. Through one of his expert witnesses, a mechanic employed by AirTran, Sprague obtained a line mechanic job for AirTran where he performed many of the tasks that United claimed he would be unable to do because of his deafness. When the case was tried in May 2000, United was reduced to arguing that Sprague was not qualified for the line mechanic job largely because he would be unable to determine whether the passenger entertainment system was working perfectly.

Jane Alper, John Sprague and his wife, Susan Sprague, at a victory party held at DLC the day after the court’s decision was announced. Photo by Pamela Coveney, DLC staff attorney.

We did a lot of work to counteract United's changing reasons for its decision. We visited Logan with an acoustical expert who measured sounds at the airport, and using these measurements, we were able to show that, with hearing aids, Sprague could detect those sounds. We located two other deaf airline mechanics who testified at trial. We videotaped United's operations at Logan to demonstrate what line mechanics actually do, and the videotapes helped us refute a number of United's claims. We subpoenaed United's maintenance records and were able to establish that repairs of passenger entertainment systems constituted less than one percent of the work done by United mechanics.

We decided to waive a jury because of concern that United would play on jurors' fears by raising the issue of passenger safety at trial, although it had not identified this as an issue beforehand. We were also concerned that the vast amount of technical information presented at trial might bore or confuse a jury. Although we waited more than two years for Judge O'Toole to issue his decision, we are convinced that we made the right choice.

The decision, handed down on Aug. 7, 2002, was entirely favorable to Sprague. O'Toole ordered United to hire Sprague as a line mechanic with seniority retroactive to the date he would have started working in 1997 and awarded back and front pay, the maximum compensatory and punitive damages available under the ADA, and pre-judgment interest. In addition, United was ordered to reimburse plaintiff's costs and attorneys' fees. The entire amount of the judgment, with interest, costs and fees, came to over $1 million.

The decision makes it clear that the judge was influenced by United's failure to engage in any sort of interactive process with Sprague, as the ADA prescribes, to investigate reasonable accommodations that would have assisted him in performing the line mechanic job and by United's shifting reasons for finding him unqualified which, in the judge's view, undermined its credibility and demonstrated bad faith. The decision is available online at the district court Web site, www.mad.uscourts.gov.

We think the decision is important because it demonstrates that, if given the right information, courts may refuse to accept an employer's asserted reasons for its action at face value. Our intensive and painstaking efforts to develop evidence that undermined the validity of United's claims made that result possible. The case also represents a welcome victory for the little guys - a dedicated client, a non-profit organization and a small public interest firm - that bested a huge corporation represented by two huge law firms.

Unfortunately, our triumph was tempered by the events of September 11 and their devastating impact on the airline industry. In an effort to stave off bankruptcy, United has severely curtailed its operations and laid off large numbers of employees. In light of recent developments, we reached a settlement with United. Although the terms of the agreement are confidential, it is fair to say that the agreement accomplishes Sprague's main goals in the case.

And on Nov. 25, his dream of working as a line mechanic for a major airline became a reality.

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