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Jones v. United Airlines

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 4, 2013

Vernon T. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED AIRLINES, Defendant.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Vernon T. Jones, Egv, IL, pro se.

Marc R. Jacobs, Samuel Michael Schwartz-Fenwick, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Chicago, IL, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

REBECCA R. PALLMEYER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Vernon T. Jones, pro se, alleges that his former employer, Defendant United Airlines (" United" ), violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 when it discontinued his health, dental, and vision coverage and failed to promote him. United moved for summary judgment on each of Jones's claims. For the following reasons, summary judgment is granted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND [1]

Jones is an African-American flight attendant who worked for United from May 7, 1995 until October 29, 2010. (7/21/11 Jones Dep., Ex. A to Def.'s App. of Materials in Supp. of its Mot. for Summ. J. [70], hereinafter " Def.'s App.", at 33:19, 37:12-14; 7/11/12 Jones Dep., Ex. D to Def.'s App., at 26:19-20.) United, a commercial airline, flies domestically and internationally. (7/21/11 Jones Dep. at 57:23-58:1.) For approximately one year, Jones worked as a domestic flight attendant for United, flying from Washington, D.C. ( Id. at 58:7-15.) For the remainder of his career with United, he worked as an international flight attendant domiciled [2] at Narita Airport near Tokyo, with the majority of his flights beginning and ending at Narita. ( Id. at 59:9-60:6.) United does not require that its flight attendants live where they are domiciled, and during his thirteen years as an international flight attendant, Jones's permanent address was in Bangkok. ( Id. at 51:4-6, 60:7-10.) From 2002 to 2006, Jones flew mostly from Tokyo to Bangkok, but from 2007 to 2010, his primary route changed to Tokyo-San Francisco, and during the last year of his employment in 2010, Tokyo-Singapore. ( Id. at 61:9-20.) When his primary routes changed, Jones did not notify United that his permanent residence address in Bangkok had changed. (7/11/12 Jones Dep. at 43:13-18.)

From 2005 to 2010, United was a party to a Collective Bargaining Agreement (" CBA" ) with the Association of Flight Attendants, of which Jones was a member. (7/11/12 Jones Dep. at 43:19-22; Glass

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Decl., Ex. F to Def.'s App., at ¶ 4.) Under the terms of the CBA, an eligible flight attendant " may elect medical coverage on behalf of herself/himself" ; a flight attendant who " fails to make an election for Medical Benefit coverage will be deemed to have waived coverage" ; and a flight attendant who " fails to make an election during any succeeding Annual Benefit Open Enrollment will be deemed to have elected to continue the election previously in effect." (CBA § 33(A)(1)(b), Ex. F-1 to Def.'s App.)

Also relevant to this case are the CBA's provisions for a Special Leave of Absence (" special leave" ), a temporary leave awarded to employees based on seniority. (CBA § 23(B); Information Packet, Ex. D-2 to Def.'s App., at 0088.) When an employee is approved for a special leave, United sends the employee an information packet that explains the effect that the leave will have on the employee's insurance benefits. (Glass Decl. ¶ 4; Information Packet at 0089.) Specifically, when an employee goes on special leave, he does not receive long-term disability coverage and his medical benefits are automatically cancelled unless the employee chooses to enroll in Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (" COBRA" ) coverage. ( Id.; Jones Benefits Personal Enrollment Worksheet, Ex. D-3 to Def.'s App., at 0071.) United sends an enrollment packet when an employee returns to work following a special leave, and the returning employee has 30 days to decide to enroll in medical, dental, and vision benefits coverage. (Information Packet at 0089.) If the returning employee was enrolled in long-term disability coverage prior to taking leave, that coverage automatically resumes. (Jones Benefits Personal Enrollment Worksheet at 0071.)

At some point prior to September 22, 2006, Jones applied for special leave. On September 22, 2006, Vicki Hammer of United's Flight Attendant Service Center sent a letter to Jones's Bangkok address, informing Jones that he had been approved for special leave from October 1, 2006 to November 30, 2006. (Letter Granting Special Leave, Ex. D-1 to Def's App., at 0073.) Enclosed with the letter was the special leave information packet, which explained that if Jones did not elect COBRA coverage during the special leave period, his medical, dental, and vision insurance benefits would be cancelled the day before his leave began. ( Id. at 0075; Information Packet at 0089.) Jones knew he was approved for leave because United posted notice about it at his " domicile." (7/11/12 Jones Dep. at 53:22-54:3.) Jones spent his special leave in Columbus, Ohio, and did not receive the letter or the information packet until he returned to Bangkok during his paid vacation in December 2006. ( Id. at 54:9-55:4.) Information about United's special leave policy was, however, available to Jones on SkyNet, United's employee Intranet service, before his leave began and after his leave ended. ( Id. at 56:23-58:15.)

Jones had medical, dental, and vision coverage prior to his special leave. He did not elect COBRA coverage for the leave period because, in his view, " COBRA insurance is for someone who has been separated from their employment and it's not conducive to a 60-day coverage period." ( Id. at 58:16-19, 59:13-21.) His benefits were therefore automatically cancelled on September 30, 2006, the day before his special leave began. (Information Packet at 0089; Jones Benefits Personal Enrollment Worksheet.)

Jones returned from special leave on December 1, 2006, and his long-term disability coverage resumed the following day. (7/11/12 Jones Dep. at 61:5-6; Jones 2006 Confirmation Statement, Ex. E-1 to Def.'s App., at 0067.) On December 13, 2006, United sent Jones a Benefits Enrollment

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Worksheet advising him that any elections for insurance benefits that he made by January 12, 2007 would be retroactively effective from December 2 until the end of 2006. (7/11/12 Jones Dep. at 71:23-72:7; Jones Benefits Personal Enrollment Worksheet at 0069.) The worksheet made clear that Jones did not have any current medical, dental, or vision coverage, and explained that if he made no elections, Jones's coverage would default to its current status. (Jones Benefits Personal Enrollment Worksheet.) Jones acknowledges that he did not make any benefit elections before the January 12, 2007 deadline. (7/11/12 Jones Dep. at 72:24-73:2.) On February 22, 2007, United sent Jones a statement confirming that he did not have medical, dental, or vision coverage from December 2 through December 31, 2006. (Jones 2006 Confirmation Statement at 0067.) Although there is no confirmation statement for 2007 in the record, Jones admits that the February 22, 2007 notice also showed that he had no benefit coverage from January 1 through December 31, 2007. ( Id. at 77:18-24.) He admits, further, that he did not take action to get insurance coverage for 2007. (7/17/12 Jones Dep. at 103:14-16.)

In October 2007, United sent a benefits enrollment worksheet for 2008 to Jones's Bangkok address, confirming that Jones had no insurance coverage at that time but was entitled to elect coverage during the open enrollment period. (Jones 7/17/12 Dep. at 103:22-104:3.) Then, on December 6, 2007, United sent a 2008 Enrollment Confirmation Statement confirming that Jones had again declined medical, dental, or vision coverage for 2008. ( Id. at 108:22-24, 110:23-111:2; Jones 2008 Annual Enrollment Confirmation Statement, Ex. E-2 to Def.'s App.) Jones received both of those documents at his Bangkok address in early 2008. ( Id. at 104:4-17, 109:24-110:7.) On March 28, 2008, Jones called United's Benefits Center to ask why he did not have insurance coverage. ( Id. at 112:1-6.) A customer service representative explained that Jones did not have coverage because he had not enrolled, but also told him that he was entitled to appeal his benefits status. ( Id. at 112:6-116:1; Benefits Summary Email at 0104.) Jones testified at his deposition that he sent an appeal to the Benefits Service Center, but never received a decision. ( Id. at 125:12-130:22.) There is no documentary evidence of such an appeal, however, and a detailed chronology of Jones's benefits elections and contacts with the Benefits Service Center, prepared by a United human resources officer, makes no mention of an appeal. Instead, the officer concludes that Jones " did not send in an appeal letter regarding his 2007 or 2008 enrollment of No Coverage. Please note that no calls were received from the employee in the year 2007." (Benefits Summary Email, Ex. F-3 to Def.'s App., at 0104-0105.)

In October 2008, United sent a benefits enrollment worksheet for 2009 to Jones's Bangkok address, and on November 4, 2008, Jones visited United's benefits website and elected medical, dental, and vision coverage for 2009. (7/17/12 Jones Dep. at 122:16-123:7.) From January 1, 2009, until the end of his employment, Jones maintained medical, dental, and insurance coverage through United, and insurance premiums were deducted from his paychecks. ( Id. at 131:6-12, 194:10-13.) Notably, during the period when Jones did not have insurance, he incurred no medical expenses and United did not deduct insurance premiums from his wages. ( Id. at 194:14-195:7.)

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On September 11, 2009, Jones filed a complaint against United with the Equal Opportunity ...


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