In an otherwise run-of-the-mill story about a jury verdict this week, something caught my eye about the employee who fought back. A Wichita, Kansas jury awarded Mario Goico $2.5 million (soon to be reduced by damages caps) in his lawsuit against Boeing for age and national origin discrimination and retaliation. But Goico isn’t just a Boeing engineer whose hopes of becoming a test pilot for his employer were dashed by discrimination. He’s State Representative Mario Goico, a Republican who represents the western side of Wichita (District 100) in the Kansas Legislature. Goico’s suit demonstrates that challenging discrimination isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a partisan activity–an important principle to remember in the aftermath of such a divisive election.
Goico, 59, has worked at Boeing in Wichita as an engineer for more than 20 years. He was raised in Cuba, and came as a refugee at age 15 to the United States in 1961, after the Bay of Pigs invasion made it likely that he would be drafted into the Cuban army (See Altus AFB article.) He was placed with a foster family in Wichita, Kansas, and studied aeronautical engineering at Wichita State University. While in school, he received his private and commercial pilots licenses, then became an Air National Guard member, ultimately advancing to colonel. He flew 36 missions during Desert Storm and volunteers for the Air Force Academy. He served his first term in the part-time Kansas Legislature in 2003, representing a west Wichita district that is 94% white.
In 2001, Boeing received approval to begin a new program in Wichita which would allow locals to be hired as test pilots, rather than using pilots from Seattle. (See Wichita Eagle article.) Goico applied for the program, thinking that as a long-time Boeing employee with decades of experience as a pilot, he was highly qualified for the position. However, he wasn’t selected. Why not? The chief pilot in the new program said that the company wanted to hire younger pilots. (At least he was honest! Often discrimination is much more subtle and difficult to prove.) The chief pilot was reprimanded for his remarks, but also got a raise and excellent evaluation the same year, causing Goico’s attorney, Jeff Spahn, to comment “We feel Boeing was saying one thing and doing another.”
As can be the case unfortunately too often, after Goico complained about the discrimination against him, he started receiving negative performance reviews. He ultimately made the difficult decision to sue the employer for which he was still working. As his lawyer said, “He has a high amount of respect for Boeing, but he thought they did the wrong thing in this instance….” This week, a jury of seven women and one man agreed. (See Wichita Eagle article.) The jury awarded Goico $31,000 in back pay, $625,000 for pain and suffering and $370,000 in what he would have received in pay as a test pilot. In addition, Goico’s award included $1.5 million in punitive damages against Boeing, who is Wichita’s largest employer.
Of course, Goico can’t take that award to the bank just yet. The jury’s verdict for pain and suffering and punitive damages, instead of being over $2 million, will be reduced by the court to $300,000, the maximum allowable under federal law. Then, Boeing could (and likely will) appeal, subjecting Goico’s fate to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision hasn’t yet been made by Boeing, but the company’s Wichita spokesman Dick Ziegler said it was “very disappointed” with the outcome. Even if Goico is ultimately not one of the 44% of employees whose verdicts are reversed on appeal (see Eisenberg/Schwab article), it could be several more years before he receives any real justice from Boeing.
While Goico was lucky enough to keep his job after complaining about discrimination, many others are not. (Of course, even if Boeing had fired the representative of a considerable number of their employees in the state legislature, the company still wouldn’t owe any more in punitive and non-economic damages than it does already, due to damage caps.) Another interesting fact to know about Goico: he was only one of three Republicans to receive an endorsement from the Wichita/Hutchinson Labor Federation Committee and appear on the Committee’s slate of “pro-working families” candidates. (It appears that either his own personal experience has shaped his legislative votes, or that he was already more pro-worker than many of his Republican colleagues in the Kansas House are perceived by local labor interests.)
While it has been the traditional perception that the Democratic Party cares more about discrimination issues, this last election demonstrated one of two things to be true nationally: 1) Those who voted Republican don’t think that discrimination will happen to them and thus it’s not an important enough issue to determine one’s voting choices; or 2) those who voted Republican believe that their leaders care enough about discrimination to make policy and appoint judges that will protect their interests in court. Let’s hope they’re right about the latter, as this case shows that even a Republican legislator from a white legislative district can encounter discrimination (and not “reverse” discrimination either) that limits career advancement and job opportunities.
Goico, and others like him, will hopefully contribute to dispelling some of the myths and rhetoric out there about “frivolous lawsuits” and “out-of-control jury verdicts.” Like legislative debate about same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues that has become more moderate and less shrill once lesbian and gay legislators inject their personal experiences and relationships with colleagues into the debate, one hopes that Goico’s Republican colleagues will now be hard-pressed to claim that lawsuits like his are frivolous or to press for further damages caps. If not, his mere presence and participation in the debate is likely to help moderate the outcome.
Now, if we could just clone him for 49 other states! But there’s some pretty partisan political opposition to that too right now….