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United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Continental Airlines

January 3, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marvin E. Aspen, District Judge


Presently before this Court is defendant Continental Airlines, Inc.'s ("Continental") motion for summary judgment of plaintiff United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") employment discrimination and harassment lawsuit on behalf of Alaini Mustafaa. For the reasons set forth below, we grant in part and deny in part the motion for summary judgment.


For purposes of this motion, we view the facts in the light most favorable to Mustafaa, the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505 (1986). Alaini Mustafaa, an African-American woman, began working at Continental as a Customer Service Agent ("CSA") in 1995. (Def. Facts ¶ 3, 4.) "CSAs load and unload luggage, freight and mail on and off airplanes." (Pl. Facts ¶ 7.) On September 16, 2000, Continental promoted her to a Lead, a non-management position in which the employee assists his or her supervisor in directing CSAs' work. (Def. Facts ¶ 20.) Mustafaa was the only female Lead ever employed at Continental's Chicago O'Hare station; she was also one of only a few female CSAs. (Pl. Facts ¶ 2.) While Mustafaa was a Lead, the chain of command went as follows: Mustafaa reported directly to supervisors Romualdo Derain and Angel Castillo, who reported to manager Ron Kobylski; Kobylski then reported to Jim Hanselmann, Continental's general manager at Chicago O'Hare. (Def. Facts ¶ 23.)

1. Demotion

As a consequence of the airline industry's economic crisis, Continental elected to reduce its work force in September 2001, including three Lead positions at Chicago O'Hare. (Def. Facts ¶ 48, 50-51.) Kobylski decided to demote Mustafaa and Jose Santiago, a Hispanic male, after consulting ramp supervisors regarding their performances.*fn2 (Id. at ¶¶ 52, 53, 55, 71.) Continental contends that performance is the primary consideration for the reduction in Leads. (Id. at ¶ 54; Hanselmann Dep. at 72). However, Continental's July 2001 written reduction in work force policy in the Fly to Win Handbook for Agents lists seniority as the sole factor for consideration.*fn3 (Pl. Resp. ¶ 54.) At the time she was demoted, Mustafaa was more senior than other Leads who remained in place. (Id.; Pl. Facts ¶ 101.). Subsequent to Mustafaa's demotion, Continental eliminated another Lead position in the international department. Hector Munguia worked as a Lead in that division until his demotion in October 2001. (Def. Resp. ¶ 112.) Continental demoted Munguia, the employee with the least seniority, after determining that none of the Leads in the international department had performance problems. (Id.)

In response to Kobylski's inquiry about Leads' performances, five supervisors commented on Mustafaa. One of the five participants, Glenn Bergner, never personally supervised or observed her work. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 55.) Rick Bray did not supervise Mustafaa, but he complained about her lack of organizational skills, observing that "she seemed frazzled." (Id. at ¶ 59; Def. Resp. ¶ 117.) Bray also mentioned concerns with Lead Santiago, who caused damage to an aircraft. (Def. Facts ¶ 63.) Additionally, Bray commented on punctuality: Mustafaa called in late two to three times due to car trouble and Lead Janzin Dixon also had attendance problems. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 59; Pl. Facts ¶ 108.) Bray's final contribution involved concerns about Mustafaa's "horseplay" in the break room. (Id.)

Matt Gorny, one of the five supervisors to respond to Kobylski, only viewed Mustafaa's work at the beginning of her shifts when Leads did not have many responsibilities. (Id.) Nonetheless, Gorny told Kobylski that he had observed Mustafaa in the break room rather than performing duties for incoming flights. (Def. Facts ¶ 64.) Gorny also complained about Santiago's performance, and he concurred with Bray's assessment of Mustafaa's punctuality. (Id.)

Derain's contribution consisted of choosing whether to demote Mustafaa or Miguel Reyes. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 55.) Derain selected Mustafaa, despite her seniority and Reyes' prior safety violation, because he "was a stronger [L]ead ... [even though h]e was just pretty much the same as [Mustafaa.]" (Id.; Derain Dep. at 96-97.) In January 2001, Continental formally disciplined Reyes for negligently failing to follow safety procedures, which resulted in damage to an airplane, injury to a co-worker, and cancelled flights. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 71.) In contrast, during the time Derain supervised Mustafaa as a Lead, he could not recall any complaints from CSAs about her performance, and he prepared positive write-ups for her file. (Pl. Facts ¶¶ 12, 14-18.) Also, in May 2001, Derain drafted a memorandum to Kobylski stating that "Mustafaa worked well [as a Lead] and is very knowledgeable of the ramp operation ... The problem isn't with the way she handles the operation, it's all the secondary issues with individual agents." (Id. at 18.)

Castillo provided most of the complaints about Mustafaa during the meeting. He asserted that Mustafaa "demonstrated planning errors and communication problems in 'irregular operation' situations, which occur when flights failed to take off or land as scheduled." (Def. Facts ¶ 56.) While Castillo coached Mustafaa on irregular operations, he never indicated that she was not progressing well prior to September 2001. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 56; Pl. Facts ¶ 19.)

2. Mustafaa's Interpersonal Skills

Mustafaa admits to a personal conflict with co-worker Andrea Weisinger, an African-American female, in May and June 2001. (Def. Facts ¶ 29.) Continental managers Derain, Hanselmann and Kobylski discussed the conflict with the women and issued written notices that future incidents at work would result in formal discipline. (Id. at ¶ 31.)

Continental did discipline Mustafaa for an incident involving CSA Vinnie Ziegler. (Id. at ¶ 32.) Mustafaa claims that Ziegler subjected her to "thirty minutes of gender-based attacks," which included calling her a "bitch," "slut," and "sexually touchy feely," in supervisor Derain's presence. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 32.) Before Derain intervened, Mustafaa made two requests for his assistance, and she threatened to call the police because she believed that Ziegler was going to hit her. (Id. at ¶ 68.) Mustafaa responded to Ziegler's attacks by making a statement over the public address system. (Def. Facts ¶ 34.) Derain heard Mustafaa say, "I'm touchy-feely, but he's gay[,]" but Mustafaa testified that she said, "if it's okay for him to call me a slut, I guess it's okay if I say I think he's gay." (Id. at ¶ 33-34.) Management issued Mustafaa a written warning for her inappropriate statement and disciplined Ziegler for his behavior. (Id. at ¶¶ 35, 36.)

Another incident involved CSA Darnell Austin. Castillo claims that he observed Mustafaa yell at Austin, but she explained that she sternly reminded him of her authority as a Lead after enduring gender-based derogatory comments from her subordinate. (Id. at ¶ 58; Pl. Facts ¶ 27.)

3. Management's Lack of Support

Mustafaa's complaints include claims that management failed to support her as a Lead and failed to adequately respond to discriminatory and harassing behavior in the workplace. At a meeting on May 21, 2000, Hanselmann, Kobylski, Castillo, and Derain discussed Mustafaa's concern that she was not getting support from management. (Def. Facts ¶ 40.) Continental claims that Mustafaa could not provide specific instances of conduct regarding the lack of support and discriminatory conduct; Mustafaa counters that she did in fact supply examples, but the managers dismissed them as having been previously addressed. (Id. at ¶ 41, 42; Pl. Resp. ¶ 41, 42.)

Mustafaa also informed her supervisors immediately following certain incidents between her and various CSAs. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 42.) For example, she told Castillo about CSA Roberto Niz's failure to follow her directions, CSA Austin's insubordination and inappropriate communications, and Lead Doran's comments, such as "[you] need[] to go home to cook for [your] husband." (Id.) At first, Castillo responded to Mustafaa's complaints by informing her crew that such discriminatory behavior would not be tolerated. (Def. Facts ¶ 107; Mustafaa Dep. at 206-07.) The situation did not improve and she no longer felt comfortable relying on Castillo so she reported subsequent misconduct to Derain. (Pl. Resp. ¶ 108; Def. Facts ¶ 109.) For example, Mustafaa informed Derain about Ziegler's behavior, which included failing to follow instructions and disrespectful remarks.

(Id.) According to Mustafaa, Derain met with Mustafaa's crew and said: "This is your [L]ead agent. You will treat her like a [L]ead agent. And, guys, understand she's a woman. Sometimes she might need a little bit of help." (Def. Facts ¶ 109.) Also, Derain counseled Mustafaa about her concerns that the crew did not listen to her by likening Mustafaa's experience to his own:"[t]hese guys are just -- you're new. They're giving you a hard time because they really don't know how you are as ... a [L]ead ... [The same thing happened with me.]" (Derain Dep. at 44.)

Additionally, Derain prepared a memorandum dated May 20, 2001, wherein he informed Kobylski and Hanselmann that Mustafaa "alleges that [CSAs] don't respect her authority on the ramp because she is a [black] woman." (Pl. Resp. ¶ 47.) Management met with Mustafaa to address her concerns, but there is no evidence that the company further investigated her claims of gender discrimination. (Pl. Facts ¶ 84; Def. Facts ¶ 40.) Rather, Continental responded by issuing "a written directive to all agents [] instructing them to comply with their [L]eads' orders." (Def. Facts ¶ 44.) Additionally, supervisors met with the CSAs to verbally reinforce the directive.*fn4

(Pl. Resp. ¶ 44.)

4. Discrimination and Hrassment Dring Work

Mustafaa testified that CSAs and Lead Doran regularly directed gender-based comments at her during the year that she worked as a Lead, including:*fn5

1. "I'm not listening to this slut. I hate her ... I hate this bitch ... Whore."

2. "Man, she a [sic] woman ... This a [sic] man's job." "3. Look at how she doing this job. Man, she need to carry her butt back to the morning shift. She don't know what she doing. These women."

4. "You need to go home and cook for your husband."

5. "That woman doesn't know what she's doing."

6. "Man, you ain't no man. Why you trying to do this job?"

7. "You're a woman trying to do a man's job. Be a man and unload that tire."

8. "Can't no [sic] woman be on no ramp, all this loading and lifting. What she [sic] trying to do? Ain't nobody going to listen. I ain't going to listen to her."

9. "I'm not going to listen to her ass...She a [sic] fucking woman. She don't know [sic] what she talking about."

10. "I'm not going to listen to a woman."

11. "You're trying to be a man, doing a man's job, you can do it yourself."

12. "You're a woman trying to do a ...

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