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Alberto Robaina v. American Airlines

January 4, 2011

ALBERTO ROBAINA,, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC.,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: United States District Judge Elaine E. Bucklo

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Alberto Robaina ("Robaina") sued American Airlines, Inc. ("American") pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., alleging that American discriminated against him because he is Hispanic; he also claims that American retaliated against him for complaints of discrimination that he made to American's Human Resources Department. American has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the motion is granted.

I.

During the time period in question, Robaina worked as a Production Supervisor in American's Maintenance & Engineering ("M&E") Department at O'Hare International Airport. Part of Robaina's job was to monitor and counsel the employees under his supervision regarding time and attendance issues. Whenever an employee was absent from work, a Production Supervisor was required to speak with the employee about the matter and to document the discussion in a report referred to as a "C23."

On December 9, 2006, Mike Morgan ("Morgan"), Robaina's manager, sent Robaina an email listing a number of employee absences for which Robaina had failed to submit a C23. The message stated, "[t]his is a serious condition and constitutes gross neglect of your duties and responsibilities as a supervisor for American Airlines." Morgan's email went on to say that failure to close out the C23s by December 18, 2006 would "result in further disciplinary action," and that "continued failure to close out your open C23s will not be tolerated."

Robaina was insulted by the email's tone and took umbrage at Morgan's suggestion that he had been disciplined on prior occasions for failing to close out his C23s. Robaina claims that he received a general notice regarding C23s that had been sent to all Production Supervisors; but he claims that he was never informed of any problems with his handling of C23s in particular. He went to see Morgan in his office and the encounter soon became heated. Robaina began yelling at Morgan and called him a coward for emailing him about the problem instead of speaking with him in person. Some witnesses testified that Robaina also told Morgan, "[n]obody threatens me and gets away with it." Pl.'s Resp. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 45. Robaina admits to yelling at Morgan, but he claims that Morgan yelled at him as well. Robaina also claims that Morgan ridiculed him by saying that he (Robaina) "should go to Human Resources to complain about the email like he had done in the past." Pl.'s Resp. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 17. Morgan instructed Robaina to hand over his identification badge and to go home. Robaina refused, however, and instead returned to his work area.

Morgan reported the incident to Station Manager Serge Balsamo ("Balsamo"), who in turn had the matter investigated by Richard Williams ("Williams"), the Manager of M&E Operations. Williams interviewed Robaina and Morgan and a number of other employees; he also consulted Joanna Gonzalez ("Gonzalez") of American's Human Resources Department. Williams concluded that Robaina had been insubordinate in violation of American's Rules of Conduct and he fired Robaina. After unsuccessfully appealing the decision in accordance with American's procedures, Robaina filed the instant suit.

II.

A plaintiff may "attempt to prove his racial discrimination case under either the direct or indirect method." Montgomery v. American Airlines, Inc., --- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 4670173, at *7 (7th Cir. 2010). Robaina seeks to establish his discrimination claim solely by means of the latter method. This requires Robaina first to make out a prima facie case for his discrimination claim by producing evidence: (1) that he was a member of a protected class, (2) that he was performing his job satisfactorily, (3) that he suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) that American treated a similarly situated individual outside his protected class more favorably. Id. If he succeeds, the burden shifts to American to "identify a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the action taken." Id. If American is able to come forward with a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, the burden shifts back to Robaina to show that the proffered reason is pretextual. Id.

Robaina is unable to make out a prima facie case in support of his discrimination claim. This is because, inter alia, he has failed to identify any employees similarly situated to himself. To show that one employee is similarly situated to another, it is typically necessary to show "that the employee held the same type of job, was disciplined by the same supervisor, was subject to the same standards, had comparable experience and qualifications, and engaged in the same conduct without differentiating or mitigating circumstances." Bodenstab v. County of Cook, 569 F.3d 651, 657 n.2 7th Cir. 2009). The problem here is that none of the potential comparators cited by Robaina was disciplined by Williams.

Robaina argues that the Seventh Circuit has become much more relaxed about the need to show that comparators have been disciplined by the same supervisor. Quite simply, this is incorrect. The Seventh Circuit continues to affirm the importance of showing that putative comparators were punished by the same supervisor. See, e.g., Bodenstab, 569 F.3d at 657 n.2 ("Discipline from a different supervisor 'sheds no light' on the disciplinary decision.") (quoting Little v. Illinois Dep't of Revenue, 369 F.3d 1007, 1012 (7th Cir. 2004)). And to the extent that there are exceptions to this rule, Robaina identifies no circumstances that would warrant application of the exception on the facts of this case.

Yet even if Robaina were able to make out a prima facie case, his discrimination claim still would fail because he has not come forward with sufficient evidence of pretext. In attempting to establish the pretextual character of American's proffered reason for firing him (his insubordination), he alleges that Balsamo once said to him, "you know, in New York we used to eat Puerto Ricans for lunch." Pl.'s L.R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 61. Robaina also claims that Balsamo called him a "shoe salesman." Id.

Even assuming that these allegations are true, they do little to help Robaina's case, for he has failed to make any connection between these statements and his termination. Robaina concedes that the decision to terminate his employment was made by Williams (in conjunction with Gonzalez). Def.'s L.R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 55. As the Seventh Circuit has pointed out, a plaintiff in a discrimination suit "does not win by showing prohibited animus by just anyone. He must show that the decisionmaker harbored animus and relied on that animus in choosing to take action." See, e.g., Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 560 F.3d 647, 655 (7th Cir. 2009). Since Williams and Gonzalez were the decision-makers, Balsamo's comments are beside the point.

As for Williams and Gonzalez, Robaina fails to come forward with any convincing evidence of a discriminatory animus. Indeed, in Gonzalez's case, the evidence strongly militates against any finding of discrimination since she, like Robaina, is Hispanic. See, e.g., Wallace v. SMC Pneumatics, Inc., 103 F.3d 1394, 1400 (7th Cir. 1997) (finding it "highly unlikely" ...


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