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Fine v. Ryan International Airlines

September 19, 2002


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 97 C 2005--Larry J. McKinney, Chief Judge.

Before Easterbrook, Kanne, and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judge


Lisa Fine, a pilot for Ryan International Airlines (Ryan), was demoted in April 1996 after failing a required proficiency check. Fine believed that her test had been rigged because Ryan's male leadership did not want women flying its planes. In September of that same year, Fine and three female co-workers wrote a letter to management complaining about Ryan's inequitable treatment of its female pilots. This resulted in a meeting where management said they could do nothing unless the women made formal written complaints. The next month, when Fine became eligible for a promotion back to her old job, she experienced difficulty in scheduling the required training. This time, she submitted a written complaint to Ryan alleging that this too was based on her sex. Days later Ryan fired her. A jury found that Ryan had illegally retaliated against Fine and awarded her over $400,000 in compensatory and punitive damages and backpay. Ryan appeals both liability and damages; Fine has cross-appealed on several points. We find no error in either the liability or damages verdict in Fine's favor and therefore affirm the court's judgment in those respects; on the cross-appeal, we agree that the figure for prejudgment interest was mistaken, and we remand for a recalculation of that award.


Ryan is a freight air carrier that flies Boeing 727s, each of which requires three pilots: a captain, a first officer, and a flight engineer. Fine, the fourth female pilot ever to work at Ryan, was initially hired as a flight engineer in 1991. Pilots at Ryan can be promoted from flight engineer to first officer upon the completion of upgrade training. Ryan offers the necessary training and promotes from within ranks when it needs new officers. Promotions have been frequent, as Ryan has grown tremendously in recent years. In April 1995, Fine successfully upgraded to first officer.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all pilots to complete an annual proficiency check, which is conducted by the airline in a flight simulator. Fine's annual check was scheduled for April 18, 1996. Normally, Ryan provides all its pilots an opportunity for a warm-up session the day before their check, but this process went awry in Fine's case. She was misinformed by a Ryan employee that her check was to take place on April 19. She therefore arrived at the training facility on the evening of April 17, in time for an April 18 warm-up, but she was informed that she had missed her warm-up and that the test itself would be administered on the 18th. It was, and she failed it.

Ryan permits all pilots who fail a proficiency check to retest, and so a retest for Fine was scheduled for the next week. Fine passed two warm-ups but failed the check because the check airman determined she had landed long. Fine believed that the simulator had been manipulated to cause her to fail and that the company was using training to get rid of or demote females. She complained verbally to Jim Miller, Ryan's Director of Flight Standards, and Ron Ryan, the company president, who found her explanations "fairly credible." She never reduced this complaint to writing. Because Fine failed her proficiency check, she was demoted to flight engineer. She then was granted a 90-day leave of absence.

In late August 1996, the four most senior female pilots at Ryan (Eugenia Smith, Vicki Ramos, Julie Chapleau, and Fine) met in Indianapolis to discuss issues of workplace harassment and problems with training. Ramos informed Fine that she had been placed in unsurvivable situations in the simulator when she was demoted to flight engineer. Later that month, a fifth female pilot, Kathy Schindelar, who had also been demoted, told Fine that Schindelar believed her own proficiency check had been manipulated and that when she complained to Danny Looney, Vice President of Flight Operations, Looney told her that she could not fly and that "no woman can fly an airplane."

On September 6, the four female pilots wrote a letter to Chief Pilot Dan Scott. The letter stated, "The senior female flight crewmembers of Ryan International Airlines request fair and equitable treatment by management and staff in all employment matters. Biased and prejudicial attitudes have been maintained and exercised in employment matters." This letter prompted Scott, along with Looney and Human Resources Director Mary McGoldrick, to meet with the women on September 18. The meeting primarily focused on sexual harassment, including complaints that male pilots were labeling the women by the size and shape of their rear ends and spreading rumors about their sex lives, and that female pilots were stereotyped as emotional, criers, and weak pilots. Looney confirmed that male pilots had told him that they would never let Chapleau touch the controls on an instrument approach, that Fine was a whiner, and that no one had anything good to say about Smith. Fine also complained about her failed proficiency check and other training inequities. At the end of the meeting, according to notes taken by Scott, Looney said that he could do nothing unless the women were willing to put their complaints in writing to human resources. He also warned that if they did so "they could expect that the pilots that were carrying any of [them] . . . might not carry them and write them up." The women did not follow up with a written complaint.

At their earlier meeting, the four female pilots had also discussed the rumor that Looney and Scott maintained confidential personnel files on them. On September 27, Fine and Joe McCloy, the head of Ryan's pilot committee, asked Scott if they could review Fine's file. Scott initially refused, saying the file was confidential. Scott then wrote to Fine that she could view the files as long as she personally came to Indianapolis and submitted supporting documentation stating the reasons why she needed access. McCloy had previously been permitted to review his file without any such rigmarole.

Under Ryan's policy, a demoted first officer was eligible for an upgrade six months "later," which Fine interpreted to mean six months from the date of her April 25 demotion. Looney, however, decided that since Fine had taken a 90-day leave of absence she would not be eligible to upgrade until six months after her actual return to work. Fine appealed to Ron Ryan, who overruled Looney and determined that Fine could upgrade through training any time after October 25. Training is normally scheduled one month in advance, but as of October 1, Fine had heard nothing from Ryan about her upgrade. That day she called Looney and pressed him to set a training date and provide her with written confirmation. At this request, Looney became irate, telling Fine he would schedule her at his convenience. He refused to provide a specific date, stating, "Lisa, I don't know. It may be tomorrow, it may be next week, it may be a month, it may be six months. I don't know." Looney then hung up on Fine.

On October 2, Fine wrote a letter to McGoldrick reciting the details of her conversation with Looney. She referenced the September 18 meeting at which she had been called a weak pilot and a whiner. She also complained that Looney had denied her access to her personnel files (although it was actually Scott who had done this). She then stated:

To date, Danny Looney and Dan Scott have (1) denied me training, (2) delayed scheduling my training, (3) demoted me, (4) hindered my upgrading, (5) pressured me to quit, (6) threatened license revocation, (7) defamed my professional flying reputation. ...

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