ST. GEORGE — A federal jury awarded $2.45 million to a SkyWest Airlines employee who said he was wrongly fired after he suffered kidney failure and was facing treatments that would have been expensive for the self-insured company.
John Hayes was awarded $450,000 in actual damages and $2 million in punitive damages, according to a statement from his lawyer, Paul Maxon, who characterized Hayes as “one of the faces of the organization, placed by SkyWest on the cover of its training materials and on the company’s promotional posters.”
SkyWest is based in St. George.
Following a six-day trial in Colorado Federal District Court in Denver, the jury deliberated about three hours before reaching its verdict on Sept. 25, Maxon said. Hayes worked at the company’s facility at Denver International Airport.
The jury found that SkyWest violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating, retaliating and failing to accommodate him, and violated the Family and Medical Leave Act by retaliating against him for taking medical leave, according to the statement.
“We are tremendously satisfied to see justice done in this case,” Maxon said. “SkyWest’s treatment of Mr. Hayes was deplorable. We hope and expect that this verdict will send a strong message to employers that discrimination and retaliation in the workplace will not be tolerated, but will be severely punished.”
A SkyWest spokeswoman told St. George News that the company “respectfully disagrees with the verdict and will appeal.”
“SkyWest is a committed equal opportunity employer and is dedicated to diversity and fairness in our workforce,” Marissa Snow said. “We remain committed to providing a just and productive work environment for each of our more than 12,000 employees.”
Two years ago, SkyWest Inc., the holding company for SkyWest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines, was named one of “America’s Best Employers” by Forbes, according to the company’s website. SkyWest was the only regional airline company included on the 2015 list and is one of just six Utah based businesses to be recognized.
SkyWest placed Hayes on involuntary leave in August 2014 after he suffered kidney failure and returned from medical leave. However, three days back on the job following the start of dialysis, Hayes was dismissed from work by SkyWest, Maxon said, adding that SkyWest argued the dismissal was necessary because Hayes had suffered a medical incident while on the job. Hayes’ nephrologist testified that such incidents are common after the start of dialysis and that Hayes was medically cleared to work.
Hayes introduced evidence suggesting that SkyWest had a financial motive to place him on involuntary leave and ultimately dismiss him, Maxon said. At the time he began dialysis, SkyWest was self insured, and his dialysis treatments could have cost upward of $100,000 per year.
SkyWest countered that its dismissal of Hayes was part of a layoff in 2014 at the Denver airport that included more than 600 employees.
Snow said that of the employees who were laid off, Hayes was one of just 9 percent who were offered opportunities to transfer to other positions within the company or be placed on one-year furlough.
Hayes alleged that the offer was a sham, made by SkyWest with the knowledge that he could not have taken an out-of-state position shortly after beginning dialysis treatment, according to Maxon’s statement.
Hayes filed an internal complaint of discrimination, followed by a formal charge of discrimination before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2014, Maxon said. Afterward, Skywest rejected him for every position he applied to, including some that it admitted at trial he was qualified for.
“The reason he did not receive those positions is because they were eliminated when United (Airlines) awarded the Denver ground-handling contract to another carrier,” Snow said. “In short, the positions no longer existed.”
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