PITTSBURGH — A former flight attendant for USAir, after years of battling in court to receive disability benefits, has lost her legal malpractice case against the attorneys who formerly represented her. She appeared without an attorney.
Patricia Skonieczny appealed the July 2016 decision in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County against her and in favor of Daniel Cooper and his law firm. The state Superior Court on April 28 upheld the lower court ruling.
Skonieczny was a flight attendant for USAir who was hired in 1969 when it was known as Allegheny Airlines. Skonieczny was married and eventually gave birth to at least nine children, taking maternity leaves with each pregnancy. Each time she returned to work, she had to meet a weight requirement.
“If the flight attendant exceeded the required weight pursuant to USAir’s weight chart, the flight attendant remained on active status... but was required to lose a certain amount of weight every three months until the flight attendant met the required goal,” the complaint said. "The employee was suspended from duty if she couldn’t meet the weight requirement."
Between October 1990, after Skonieczny had her eighth child, and April 1994, when Skonieczny miscarried her tenth child, she was either on weight suspension or maternity leave status. During that time period, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] filed suit against USAir claiming its weight policy discriminated against flight attendants. The case was settled in March 1994.
USAir required Skonieczny to take and pass a performance test in order to return to work. After six months of maternity leave, Skonieczny was placed on weight suspension in October 1994. She passed the performance test in early 1995 but had medical issues that prevented her from returning to full employment.
In May 1995, Skonieczny applied for long-term disability benefits, claiming panic disorder with agoraphobia and depression disorder. Her request was denied because her flight attendant agreement stipulated that the amount of benefits was determined by “the previous year’s gross salary divided by the number of months actually worked."
Since Skonieczny was on maternity leave during the entire previous year, she was not entitled to benefits.
As a result of the denial, Skonieczny filed a union grievance through the Association of Flight Attendants. In April 1996, she notified the EEOC of her discrimination claims against USAir, and in 1997, she received a right to sue from the EEOC. At that time she was not represented by an attorney.
In December 1997, she hired attorney Daniel Cooper to represent her, and he filed suit on her behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
The complaint “alleged claims for violations of Title VII, the ADA, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act." Cooper also advised her in a letter that “I am concerned because the only charge you filed with the EEOC is ... [an ADA] charge. Quite frankly, this is not an ADA case. In fact, [USAir] admits you are disabled. If anything, this is a sex discrimination or retaliation case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, no charge was ever filed with the EEOC on these issues.”
The flight attendant’s union informed Skonieczny in February 1998 that they would withdraw her case from the Flight Attendant Retirement Board because it was without legal merit.
In November 1998, all of the claims against USAir were dismissed except for gender discrimination. In September 1999, that claim was dismissed.
“Additionally, the district court granted summary judgment with respect to her... sex discrimination claims because she never filed a charge with the PHRC to exhaust her administrative remedies,” according to the court opinion.
In September 2003, with new counsel, Skonieczny filed her legal malpractice action. She claimed that she was entitled to benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, but her attorneys failed to apply for that. In March 2016, there was a jury trial and Skonieczny lost.
She appealed, but the appellate court agreed with the lower court, holding that she had failed to establish the elements of a viable legal malpractice claim.