Investigation starts into case of mom kicked off airplane
The decision, issued last Thursday in the form of a letter from VHRC Executive Director Robert Appel to a representative for Freedom Airlines, is a welcome development for the complainant, 27-year-old Emily Gillette of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"I think they made the right decision ... I feel really pleased about it," said Gillette, speaking by phone from Santa Fe, Monday. "It feels good to be validated by the state."
Gillette is not suing the airlines. Instead, as she phrases it, "the state of Vermont is taking up the responsibility of upholding their own laws," which Gillette claims were violated Oct. 13, when a Freedom Airlines flight attendant ordered Gillette off a plane departing from Burlington for publicly breastfeeding.
According to Vermont state statutes, a woman's right to breastfeed in public is protected by law, the main reason cited by VHRC in its rejection of Delta and Freedom's request to throw out Gillette's allegations against them.
For their part, Delta and Freedom Airlines had argued that federal preemption law prevents a state from asserting a state civil rights claim. However, in its denial of the airlines' request, VHRC cited federal and Vermont Supreme Court cases that demonstrate otherwise.
Appel refused Monday to confirm or deny his issuance of the letter informing Freedom Airlines of the commission's decision, saying, "all matters brought before the HRC are confidential and cannot be discussed until an agreement has taken place."
He did outline the next step of the process for the parties involved.
Since Gillette and Delta and Freedom Airlines had failed to solve the issue through negotiation, an investigation will now commence that may involve requests for documents and a review of any and all materials submitted by both parties relating to the incident in question.
Once an investigative report is given to both parties, according to Appel, both parties have the right to respond to the report within 10 days of receiving it. Both parties also have the right to appear before the commission to make a brief oral presentation.
If, after this, the commissioners decide that there are reasonable grounds to believe that unlawful discrimination occurred, the case will be transferred to the executive director, who will attempt to bring both parties to accept a settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached within six months, the commissioners will decide whether to close the case or take it to court, either in Montpelier or the court in the county in which the alleged incident took place.
Gillette's lawyer, Elizabeth Boepple of Manchester, was pleased by news of the VHRC's decision to uphold Gillette's complaint. "What it means is we can now proceed," said Boepple, who was also impressed by the solid defense of Gillette's complaint provided by VHRC.
"What I appreciated about the analysis was that ... the Vermont Supreme Court has made clear how preemption interplays with Vermont's law," said Boepple. "It's a well-reasoned and very solid denial."
"We hope that this will be an encouragement for the airline to recognize that they need to pay some attention to this case," Boepple added.
For her part, Gillette feels fortunate to have the support of VHRC.
"It's scary to be up against giants," said Gillette, who added that, despite the wave of media attention that followed her ouster from a Freedom Airlines plane, she feels happy and perhaps like a better person.
"It's made me a more active person," Gillette said. "I feel like a more connected person, at least to one social movement."
Representatives for Delta and Freedom Airlines could not be reached for comment.
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