The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments in four separate cases in Juneau court Tuesday, including one case alleging the wrongful firing of an Alaska Airlines employee that was dismissed by the lower courts.
Attorney Fred Triem argued to the justices that his client Helen Lingley was superficially fired for stealing “miserable little earbuds with some passenger’s ear wax on them” that are handed out during a flight and often left behind.
The real reason behind her firing was Lingley’s age, her hourly wage that increased with seniority and her decision to report company misconduct that violated government rules to federal authorities, according to Triem’s brief prepared for the justices.
The lower court’s decision was to dismiss the case because it was a federal issue.
“The Superior Court overlooked a basic principle of American jurisdiction and that is that state courts and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction,” Triem said, later adding that the common law concept went “over the head” of those in the lower courts.
“The plaintiff is the master of her case,” Triem said, loosely quoting former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to explain his client elected to present her case according to state laws, not federal ones.
Putting aside the common law argument, Triem said Alaska Airlines, represented by Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, could have had the case removed sooner to a federal court. It is now too late for that action, Triem said.
“Large law firms representing corporate clients know that when a little guy sues the big company in state court, what’s the first thing the defendant does? Remove it to federal court. Well, there was no removal here,” Triem said.
Attorney Gregory Fisher explained the airline’s side of the case, telling them Lingley was given two opportunities to return to work but rejected both of them. He also told the justices that she was in breach of her contract when she reported her company before attempting to use the union guidelines in place.
Triem said his client rejected both of the offers to return to work because they came with a required admittance of guilt to stealing ear buds. As for her deterrence from the union plan for issuing a complaint, Triem told the justices Lingley’s union representative purposely misled her because he was employed by Alaska Airlines as well and “the union double crossed her.”
In his closing rebuttal, Triem told the justices to think about the justice of firing Lingley to save money when they catch a flight out of Juneau to Anchorage.
“When you go through the airport tonight you will probably encounter Helen Lingley’s successor,” Triem said. “When she was discharged she was getting paid $22 bucks an hour and her replacement earned $11.”
The state’s highest court took the arguments under advisement. They also heard arguments in three other appeals Tuesday afternoon. One involved the right of a person running for public office to keep earnings private from the Alaska Public Offices Commission when client confidentiality is at stake. The other two arguments included liability in a car accident and a dispute between Silverbow Construction and the State of Alaska’s Division of General Services.
The Alaska Supreme Court hears oral arguments quarterly and prefers to hear arguments in the judicial district where the case was heard by the trial court, according to the court system’s website. The justices receive written arguments for each of the cases and hear oral arguments only once.