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Attorneys Vic Hill and Brad MacDonald

Court: airline can’t decide whether pilot divorces are legitimate

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that an airline cannot decide that a pilot’s divorce is fake, dismissing a lawsuit that accused nine pilots of divorcing their spouses in an attempt to tap into their pension benefits early.

The attorneys for the pilots called the dismissal of the Continental Airlines suit a “victory for employee privacy rights,” stating that employers do not have the right to investigate and judge an employee’s divorce or any other aspect of his or her private life.

Continental filed the lawsuit against nine former pilots in 2009, claiming that each had divorced their husbands and wives in order that their ex-spouses could receive payouts from the pilots’ pensions before the pilots retired from the airline. In its suit, Continental claimed that the pilots sought divorces in states where family law dictated that an ex-spouse must receive a significant portion of their retirement benefits.

The airline alleged that it had paid out over $10 million in pension distributions that the pilots had assigned to their ex-spouses during their divorces. All of the pilots then allegedly remarried their ex-spouses.

In the latest court ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the pilots, upholding a lower court decision stating that employers cannot investigate or infer why their employees divorce or whether that divorce is legitimate. The court then dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety.

An attorney for the pilots stated that they plan to file a lawsuit against Continental, claiming that they were wrongfully terminated and that the airline interfered with their pension rights.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Pilots win ‘sham-divorce’ case against Continental,” David Koenig, 19 July 2011