Houston Team Secures Significant Appellate Victory in Employment Discrimination Suit

Houston, Texas (May 28, 2020) - Houston Partner William S. Helfand and Associate Sean O. Braun secured an appellate win on behalf of their clients, Lufthansa German Airlines (Lufthansa) and ISS Facility Services, Inc. (ISS), an airport services company, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted their motion to compel arbitration in an employment discrimination matter.

In the underlying case, the plaintiff worked as a manager for Lufthansa and ISS at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where she supervised ticketing and gate agents. She sued our clients in federal court after being terminated from her position, alleging that she was fired for reporting discrimination against black and brown workers.

Messrs. Helfand and Braun filed a motion to compel arbitration, pursuant to the arbitration agreement that the plaintiff had executed with her employers. The plaintiff contended that she was exempt from the agreement under the transportation worker exemption in the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas held that because the plaintiff was not involved “in the movement of goods in interstate commerce,” she was not exempt under the FAA. Thus, it ordered the plaintiff to arbitrate her claims. The plaintiff then appealed.

In its analysis, the Fifth Circuit relied upon its 1996 opinion in Rojas v. TK Communications, Inc., in which it held that the FAA’s employment exclusion applied only to workers who moved goods in interstate commerce. The court reasoned that because the plaintiff’s primary responsibility was to usher passengers to airplanes, and not to transport goods through interstate commerce, she did not qualify for the FAA’s transportation worker exemption. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, concluding that “arbitration was validly ordered to resolve her dispute.” Mr. Braun drafted the successful appellate brief

In reflecting upon the decision, Mr. Helfand told Law360, “We are happy to see the Fifth Circuit reassert the controlling nature of the Rojas opinion.” He added, “This approach makes sense in light of the statute and the party’s agreement to arbitrate. Hopefully, this opinion will settle this issue in the circuit going forward so parties may get the benefit of their agreement to arbitrate.”

Further details of this case are available in the Law360 article titled “5th Circ. Says Lufthansa Worker Must Arbitrate Race Bias Suit” (subscription required).

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