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JetBlue age, gender bias lawsuit is revived

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit by a former JetBlue Airways Corp employee who accused the discount carrier of age and gender bias, creating a hostile work environment, and firing her in retaliation for complaining.

The ruling by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates claims made by Diane Gorzynski, who was a JetBlue customer service supervisor at Buffalo International Airport in New York before being fired in July 2002.

Such supervisors are responsible for overseeing gate check-in, baggage, parking aircraft and maintaining safety.

A district court judge in Buffalo had dismissed Gorzynski's complaint in September 2007, and the appeals court sent the case back to that court. Gorzynski's lawyer said the plaintiff turns 64 next week, and plans at a trial to seek reinstatement, back pay, punitive damages and other remedies.

"We're very pleased," the lawyer, Josephine Greco, said in an interview. "She was a hard-working, excellent employee, but was treated differently because she was older and female, and fired basically because she complained."

Gorzynski now works in real estate, she said.

JetBlue spokesman Sebastian White said the Forest Hills, New York-based company does not discuss pending litigation.

According to the opinion, JetBlue hired Gorzynski in January 2000 as a customer service agent, and promoted her to supervisor four months later.

She alleged that her former male supervisor made several comments and gestures that constituted harassment, once saying over a loudspeaker during a boarding call that she had been a table dancer and a female colleague had been a pin-up girl.

Gorzynski also contended that some younger workers were excused from mandatory bag search and screening training after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and regularly violated conduct and time off policies without being disciplined.

She said she was fired after expressing support for a black colleague who alleged he had been subjected to racial bias.

JetBlue argued that Gorzynski was fired because of her "unsatisfactory interpersonal skills," and should have taken more steps to redress the alleged harassment than complain only to her supervisor -- who was also her alleged harasser.

In a 31-page opinion for a three-judge appeals panel, Judge Guido Calabresi said the plaintiff had produced ample evidence of mistreatment, and which cast "significant doubt" on JetBlue's purported nondiscriminatory reason for her firing.

He rejected the district court's "brittle reading" of U.S. Supreme Court precedents that JetBlue relied on in saying the plaintiff should have pursued other remedial channels, saying several looked "ineffective or even threatening" in this case.

The Supreme Court did not intend for sexual harassment victims to "go from manager to manager until they find someone who will address their complaints," Calabresi wrote.

"Considering the courage it takes to complain about what are often humiliating events and the understandable fear of retaliation that exists in many sexual harassment situations, we decline to read the rule so rigidly," he added.

The case is Gorzynski v. JetBlue Airways Corp, U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 07-4618.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel, additional reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by John Wallace and Richard Chang)