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In a scathing opinion that speaks of “abject dishonesty” by the company, a federal judge has ruled that the former McDonnell Douglas Corp. shuttered its Tulsa, Okla., plant in 1994 to deprive aging workers of their retirement benefits. The Sept. 5 ruling by U.S. District Judge Sven Erik Holmes of the Northern District of Oklahoma sets the stage for lawyers representing more than 1,200 former McDonnell Douglas workers to seek equitable relief for lost wages and pension and health benefits. It has been estimated the workers could be awarded as much as $200 million. The Boeing Co. bought McDonnell Douglas of St. Louis in 1997. Holmes agreed with workers in the class action that McDonnell Douglas closed the Tulsa plant — which manufactured and assembled fighter and attack aircraft, helicopters and missile systems — to save $24.7 million in pension and medical benefits covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. “It was an incredible case of corporate arrogance,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Joseph R. Farris, a member of Feldman Franden Woodard & Farris in Tulsa. In a statement, Boeing said it “strongly disagrees with Judge Holmes’ decision.” The company said it is evaluating its legal options and has not made a decision on what course to pursue. “McDonnell Douglas closed the Tulsa facility in 1994 — and other facilities both before and after — because the military equipment market shrank after the end of the cold war, and the company was left with excess capacity and assets. These decisions are always difficult because of the impact they have on the lives of many fine employees,” the statement reads. “But facility closures became necessary because the market for military products changed, and there simply wasn’t enough work.” The employees tell a different story. Facing cutbacks because of declines in government defense contracts, the company told its Tulsa employees in 1992 that the plant would stay open until at least 1995 if both President George H.W. Bush and the Congress approved the sale of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, the opinion says. The employees embarked on a huge lobbying effort. But at the same time, unknown to the Tulsa plant manager, McDonnell Douglas was studying which plants to shut down based, in part, on pension and benefit savings, according to the opinion. In December 1993, the company announced it would shut down the Tulsa plant, which had the oldest work force of seven McDonnell Douglas facilities. When the announcement was made, the company was in the middle of lease negotiations with the city of Tulsa and the federal government for the plant — a process the judge says was a “sham.” In his opinion, Holmes excoriated McDonnell Douglas for its “abject dishonesty” and “outright falsehoods” in the way it dealt not only with employees, but also with Tulsa city officials, the Oklahoma congressional delegation and — after the suit was filed — the court. Throughout the eight-year litigation, which included a two-week trial and four separate hearings before Holmes, McDonnell Douglas “intentionally and in bad faith withheld or possibly destroyed documents,” the judge said. Millsap v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., No. 94-C-633-H.

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