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Cosmas G. Stratigos v. American Airlines

May 11, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow


Cosmas Stratigos, of Greek national origin, filed a complaint against his former employer, American Airlines, Inc. ("American"), alleging discrimination based on national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 et seq. Before the court is American's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion [#55] is granted.


I. Stratigos's Employment History

Stratigos worked as a fleet service clerk for American at O'Hare International Airport from 1987 until his termination on March 20, 2006. Fleet service clerks perform a variety of duties, including cleaning aircraft, loading and unloading aircraft, servicing lavatories, and unloading cargo and mail.

Prior to his termination, Stratigos's personnel file did not contain any disciplinary records. Human Resources employee Daniel Procknow and airport service manager Diana Henao testified that Stratigos was qualified for his position at the time of termination. In 1998, however, he had been found working out at a hotel gym during work hours, which led to his termination. Stratigos was reinstated nine days later. He claims that he was working out during his lunch hour and that others doing the same thing were not terminated. He filed a charge of discrimination based on national origin with the Illinois Department of Human Rights because he was the only one singled out for working out in the gym. Pursuant to a settlement agreement in which Stratigos agreed to withdraw his charge, he received an oral apology from Duke Schneider, a supervisor whose conduct during the investigation of the gym incident Stratigos found objectionable. Procknow was aware of this situation.

II. Relevant Laws and American Policies

American and its employees are subject to federal regulations regarding the disposal of food that arrives on international flights. These regulations provide that regulated garbage shall not be removed from an aircraft unless it is in tight, leak-proof receptacles. American has established its own policy on regulated garbage, which defines regulated garbage to include food that was available on international flights but not consumed. Dairy, milk, cream, and ice are given as examples of regulated garbage. Under American's policy, regulated garbage is to be placed in specifically designated plastic bags or leak proof containers and either sterilized or incinerated. As he came into contact with regulated garbage in his position as a fleet service clerk, Stratigos completed training on American's regulated garbage policy on April 21, 2003.*fn1

III. The Milk Incident

On March 14, 2006, Stratigos was not assigned to the international terminal. He was observed there, however, by two U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialists as he was leaving the jet bridge of an aircraft that had arrived from London, England with another fleet service clerk, Rajan Thomas.*fn2 Stratigos was carrying newspapers, a magazine, and three half pints of fresh cold milk. Stratigos and Thomas proceeded to a nearby lavatory truck, where Stratigos placed the milk bottles on a seat. James Luebker, one of the U.S. Customs agents, approached Stratigos and Thomas about their apparent infraction of the regulated garbage regulations. Stratigos and Thomas were asked to draft statements to explain the removal of the milk bottles, which they did. The incident was reported and a meeting was held soon thereafter. Luebker attended, as did American customer service managers Joanie Avery, Kathleen Guerrero, Jim Meyers, and Sean O'Brien. The incident was discussed, as was the fact that Thomas had previously been found eating onboard an international arrival. Luebker informed the others that American would be issued a violation for failure to comply with federal regulations.

After the meeting with Luebker, O'Brien or Guerrero notified Henao that Stratigos had been caught by U.S. Customs removing milk from an international arrival. O'Brien then informed Stratigos that a 29f investigation would be conducted. A 29f investigation is governed by the fleet service clerks' union contract and provides for a conference at which the clerk is allowed to be represented by a union steward. During the conference, the supervisor reads the clerk the contract's 29f provision and American Rule 16, which provides that misrepresentation or falsification of facts is not allowed. The supervisor and union steward then ask the clerk questions regarding the incident under investigation.

Stratigos told O'Brien a story that was consistent with his written statement to Luebker: He went to the international terminal to find a co-worker to discuss a personal matter. While on a jet bridge, he noticed milk bottles and a spill near the door of the aircraft parked at that gate. He boarded the aircraft to get paper towels from the lavatory, cleaned up the spill, and then threw the paper towels away in the lavatory. He then took the bottles of milk with him, planning to put them in the sink at gate K19.*fn3 Stratigos claimed not to be a milk drinker. He did not report the spill to the environmental coordinator, as required for unknown spills that may pose a danger, because he addressed the issue as quickly and effectively as possible.

O'Brien relayed the results of the 29f conference to Henao. The two of them contacted American's Human Resources department and decided to withhold Stratigos with pay pending the outcome of further investigation into the incident. As part of this investigation, Craig Martin, who met the aircraft at issue upon its arrival, provided a statement. He reported that he performed customary perfunctory checks of the aircraft after its passengers had deplaned and did not notice any milk or other foodstuffs left anywhere except onboard the aircraft. O'Brien did not personally speak to Martin or any other potential witness, including Thomas, or check the aircraft lavatory bathroom for wet paper towels that could have potentially substantiated Stratigos's story.

O'Brien and Henao ultimately determined that Stratigos should be terminated. They consulted with Human Resources employees Procknow and Kim Roush in coming to this decision. They concluded that Stratigos had been untruthful in his story. Their reasons included that (1) it was unusual for milk bottles to be found on a jet bridge, (2) there was no supporting evidence that someone had put the milk on the jet bridge, (3) it was unlikely that Stratigos would be taking the milk such a long distance to gate K19 to dispose of it, (4) there was no explanation for why Stratigos would not dispose of the milk in the aircraft lavatory when disposing of the paper towels he used to clean up the spill, ...

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