Three years ago, a New Mexico woman alleged she and her family were removed from a New York bound-Delta flight at Burlington International Airport because she was breast-feeding her 22-month-old daughter and refused to cover up. A legal fight has been brewing since.
Negotiations to reach a settlement collapsed, and Emily Gillette filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, setting the stage for an uncommon legal battle.
Gillette was flying from Burlington on a Delta Connections flight operated by Freedom Airlines Inc., which is a subsidiary of Mesa Air Group Inc.
After twice declining to use a blanket offered by a flight attendant to cover herself, Gillette was instructed to leave the plane for failing to follow the flight attendant’s instructions. She “felt shamed and humiliated in front of her fellow passengers who witnessed the event,” the court filing states. “She tearfully gathered her belongings to exit the plane.”
Gillette approached the front of plane and told the flight attendant – who had earlier told Gillette, “You are offending me” – she felt shamed and embarrassed, according to the lawsuit. The flight attendant “pointed to the exit and demanded: ‘Just get off the plane,'” the court documents read.
The pilot and co-pilot saw the exchange but did not intervene, according to the filing.
Gillette didn’t “engage in any loud or unsafe action that could be viewed as a threat to air safety,” according to the documents. She also “had her toddler positioned with her head toward the aisle” with no part of her breast exposed, according to the filing.
“As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation,” Anthony Black, Delta’s spokesman, said Wednesday. “Delta Airlines fully supports a mother’s right to breast-feed. We work with all of our Connection partners to ensure the customer experience is consistent.”
Mesa Air Group Inc., Freedom’s parent company, could not be reached for comment.
Vermont has one of the strongest laws in the country that guarantees a women’s right to breast-feed, said Elizabeth Boepple, a lawyer based in Portland, Maine, who is representing Gillette. According to state statutes, “a mother may breastfeed her child in any place of public accommodation in which the mother and child would otherwise have a legal right to be,” according to the lawsuit.
Efforts to resolve the matter out of court failed.
“We had some very preliminary discussions,” Boepple said, describing negotiations as “thoroughly unsuccessful.”
“We were worlds apart,” she said of the conversations that mostly involved Freedom Airlines and Mesa Air. Settlement amounts offered by the airlines were trivial, she said. “They minimized this.”
Gillette’s lawsuit seeks an unspecified sum for compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney fees and costs; the lawsuit says the “amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.” Gillette also is seeking an order to prevent the airlines named in her lawsuit “from violating any and all others’ right to breastfeed.”
The experience has had a lasting effect, according to the lawsuit. Gillette, who was 27 at the time of the incident, “has since felt anxiety when she has breastfed in places of public accommodation, and has felt inhibited from nursing her second child based on her experience aboard Delta code-share Flight 6160.”
Black said he is not aware of breast-feeding controversies on Delta flights other than the situation on Flight 6160 on Oct. 13, 2006. Boepple said this case “is the first one.”
Gillette’s legal filing, which names as defendants Delta Airlines Inc. and the regional airline, is one of two lawsuits working its way through Vermont’s court system. The Vermont Human Rights Commission plans to file a similar lawsuit in state court today, Boepple said. The commission’s lawsuit will name the regional contractors but not Delta.
Mesa Air Group still flies routes for Delta but not to Burlington, Black said. The change was not a result of the pending litigation, he said.
“A breast-feeding mother is perfectly acceptable on an aircraft, providing she is feeding the child in a discreet way” that doesn’t bother others, said Paul Skellon, a spokesman for Phoenix-based Freedom Airlines, shortly after the incident occurred. “She was asked to use a blanket just to provide a little more discretion, she was given a blanket, and she refused to use it, and that’s all I know.”
The flight attendant who ordered Gillette off the flight acted “contrary to company expectations” and was disciplined, Skellon said in a subsequent interview in late 2006.
Mesa Air Group and its subsidiary began service for Delta as a Delta Connection carrier in October 2005. The company operates 22 regional jet aircraft as Delta Connection, Mesa Air’s Web site says.
After being removed from the flight, Gillette and her the family flew to New York the next day. Delta provided ground transportation, hotel accommodations and new tickets on another airline.