People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Writes Unanimous Decision Ruling that Airline Pilots on Temporary Military Leave are Eligible for Pay and Benefits

Biden Judge Writes Unanimous Decision Ruling that Airline Pilots on Temporary Military Leave are Eligible for Pay and Benefits

Judge Arianna Freeman,   nominated by President Biden to the Third Circuit, wrote a unanimous opinion  that reversed a lower court and ruled that commercial airline pilots can pursue their claim that they should receive pay and benefits, comparable to those relating to bereavement leave, when they are on short-term military leave. The May  2024 decision was in Scanlan v American Airlines Group Inc.

What happened in this case?

 James Scanlan, a retired Major General in the US AirForce Reserve, and Carla Riner, a Brigadier General in the Delaware National Guard, work as pilots for American Airlines. They represent a class of American pilots who took short-term leave from their employment in order to perform required military duties.

The corporation does not pay or provide benefits to pilots while they are on military leave. In contrast, American does provide such pay and benefits when they take bereavement leave because of the death of a relative or leave for jury duty. For example, with respect to jury duty, the airline pays pilots “the difference between their jury duty payments and their airline compensation for the duration of the jury service.”

Scanlan and Riner filed a class action in federal court on behalf of pilots against American, contending that their refusal to pay pilots during temporary military leave when it does pay them for leave for other reasons violates the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The statute provides that employees who take military leave are entitled to the “rights and benefits” that are “generally provided” to other employees who are “on furlough or leave of absence.”

The district court, however, found that military leave was “not comparable” to bereavement or jury duty leave, based on such factors as “duration, frequency, control, and purpose.” It granted summary judgment for American and dismissed the pilots’ case. They appealed to the Third Circuit.


How Did Judge Freeman and the Third Circuit Rule and Why Is it Important?

 Judge Freeman wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed the lower court.  Based on a careful review of the record and of USERRA, she ruled that there were genuinely disputed issues of material fact as to whether military leave was comparable to jury duty or bereavement leave. As a result, she explained,  “the comparability question must go to a jury.”  The court of appeals sent the case back to the lower court so that the pilots could get their day in court before a jury.

Judge Freeman’s opinion is obviously important to James Scanlan, Carla Riner, and the other American Airlines pilots who take temporary military leave. They will now have their day in court before a jury to prove that they should receive pay and benefits when they are on required military leave. In addition, the decision provides significant guidance on the interpretation and application of USERRA, an important civil rights law for people in the military. This is particularly true in the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The ruling also serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judges to our federal courts.