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Continental Airlines pilot divorce pension lawsuit thrown out

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Divorces can happen for a variety of reasons. One lawsuit from Continental Airlines alleged that Continental pilots had less-than-admirable motivation for filing for divorce from their spouses: to collect a $900,000 early lump sum from the airline's pension plan.

Continental Airlines and the committee that runs the retirement plan for pilots brought a lawsuit against nine of its pilots, accusing of them of staging sham divorces so that their ex-spouses could collect pilots' retirement benefits, even as the pilots continued to fly.

A federal judge tossed out the case recently, ruling that the Continental pension administrators did not have the authority to determine the grounds for divorce of employees. As the suit revolved around the divorce motivations, rather than the legality of the divorces themselves, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller determined that the case should be dismissed.

According to the Associated Press, Miller stated that "the facts show — and the pilots do not seem to contest — that the pilots and their former spouses did not behave in a manner consistent with the breakup of a marriage."

According to Miller, many of the pilots in the case continued to live with spouses with whom they'd divorced, and even remarried, soon after the pensions were paid out. Continental Airlines claimed that the pilots kept their divorces a secret from friends and family.

Miller told the AP that he couldn't condone the alleged actions of the pilots, but that the law did not apply in this case. Essentially, he stated, good faith motivations for divorce were not "an enumerated requirement" of the pension plan.

Continental claimed that the pilots had taken advantage of a loophole in the pension plan that, according to the AP, "in cases of divorce allows payment of benefits before the worker retires." The pilots in the case were over retirement age, which allowed the payees--the pilots' ex-spouses--to collect the lump sum payment upon request.

Continental fired all of the pilots following the discovery of the pension payouts, only one of whom it hired back in return for promise of repayment of the pension sum. In the case, Continental was seeking not only repayment of the distributed pensions, but also a statement from the court that their subsequent dismissal of pilots was not discriminatory.

Both of these goals went unmet with the dismissal of the case.

According to the Houston Chronicle, "Continental officials called the judge’s ruling a technical reading of the federal statute regulating pension plans, but said they were heartened that Miller seemed to agree with their premise that the divorces did not appear to be legitimate."

Lawyers for the pilots, on the other hand, viewed the case's dismissal as a vindication. The pilots are filing counterclaims, citing damages and back pay after they were fired. Lawyers for the pilots also claimed that Continental "spent a year and a half investigating the personal and family lives of nine of its pilots on the pretext of trying to administer its pension fund."

A clear cut resolution to the case was clearly not in the cards with Judge Miller's decision. What he did make clear about his decision was that divorce law, rather than the private lives of the pilots or the vehemence of Continental, was the deciding factor.


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