Wichita — Angry former aircraft workers criticized a federal judge Friday who dismissed their age discrimination lawsuit against The Boeing Co., saying he never should have handled the case because of his past professional connections to the aerospace giant.
Former employees said there was an appearance of bias because U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren is a former partner of the law firm that defended Boeing against the suit. Seven years ago, he represented Boeing in unrelated tax matters.
The two workers who initiated the class-action lawsuit — which represented more than 700 workers — said they may appeal.
‘I was devastated’
The lawsuit was filed against Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems in the wake of Boeing’s 2005 sale of commercial airplane operations in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Melgren summarily ruled in favor of the companies this week, saying the evidence was insufficient to establish a pattern of discrimination during the divestiture.
“I was devastated in that I didn’t think the plaintiffs got a fair shake before this court and I don’t think the ruling stems from any real review, impartial review of the record in evidence,” said Henry Butler, a 56-year-old former Boeing employee who wasn’t rehired by Spirit after the sale.
Former workers said they were not comfortable having the case decided by a judge who developed friendships and relationships while working for Foulston Siefkin LLP that couldn’t be easily set aside.
Melgren was a partner in the firm before being named U.S. attorney for Kansas in 2002.
“When you read the ruling, it don’t sound like a judge at all. It sounds like a defendant,” said Warren Pyles, a 53-year old former Boeing worker who lost his job and future pension benefits after the divestiture.
On Friday, Melgren said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that it would not be appropriate for him to respond to the workers’ comments. But in the past, Melgren has noted that he was involved in several cases that were adverse to Boeing during his tenure as U.S. attorney.
His past ties to Boeing were first raised last year when the workers’ attorney, Lawrence Williamson, filed a motion asking Melgren to remove himself from the case shortly it was assigned to him.
The plaintiffs argued that the question was not whether the court was biased, but whether a reasonable person would “harbor doubts about the judge’s impartiality.”
Melgren refused to recuse himself, ruling in July 2009 that he no longer had a financial interest in the law firm. He said it was not reasonable to question his impartiality as a judge on those grounds alone.
The judge also noted that his representation of Boeing on tax issues did not involve any employment matters.
“This case arises from actions involving the sale of Boeing’s Wichita assets to the newly formed company Spirit Aerosystems, which occurred 3 years after my departure,” Melgren wrote at that time.
Still, the former workers were furious Friday that the discrimination lawsuit they filed in 2005 never got a trial date. They also believe a judge with more experience should have handled the case, which was assigned to Melgren in October 2008, just weeks after he was confirmed by the Senate as the newest federal judge for Kansas.
“A suit of this multitude is complex. It is supposed to have a judge with experience,” Pyles said. “We get a rookie judge to intervene in on this case out of nowhere, comes right in with a background of association with the defendant.”
The lawsuit was initially filed by 90 former workers, a number that had grown by more than 700 additional ex-workers who have since asked to join the suit.
Wednesday’s decision by Melgren also makes moot the class-action status sought by workers.