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Lara-Woodcock v. United Air Lines, Inc.

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

November 20, 2013


For Michelle Lara-Woodcock, Plaintiff: Uche O. Asonye, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jason D Keck, Scott C. Fanning, Asonye and Associates, Chicago, IL.

For United Continental Holdings, Inc., United Air Lines, Inc, Defendants: Marc R. Jacobs, LEAD ATTORNEY, Asilia S Backus, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Chicago, IL.


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JOAN B. GOTTSCHALL, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Michelle Lara-Woodcock is a former employee of United Air Lines, Inc. (" United" ). She worked for United as the only female Ground Equipment Mechanic at O'Hare International Airport for nearly ten years, until she became pregnant in 2008. She has sued United for sex and pregnancy discrimination and retaliation, pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (Counts I-III), and retaliatory discharge under Illinois common law (Count IV).

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Now before the court is United's motion for summary judgment on all of Lara-Woodcock's claims. Because, construing the facts and drawing all permissible inferences in Lara-Woodcock's favor, no reasonable jury could find that United discriminated against Lara-Woodcock based on her sex or pregnancy, retaliated against her for engaging in protected conduct, or discharged her in violation of Illinois law or public policy, the court grants the motion in its entirety.

I. Facts

The court takes the following facts from the parties' Local Rule 56.1 Statements of Facts (" SOFs" ), to the extent that the facts are supported by admissible evidence and relevant to the issues raised in the motion. Where the facts are disputed, the court takes no position as to which version of the disputed matter is correct. See Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2003).[1]

United is an international airline carrier that operates flights at O'Hare. After Lara-Woodcock's honorable discharge from the Air Force, United hired her as a Ground Equipment Mechanic on or about September 28, 1998, in the Ground Equipment Maintenance Department at O'Hare. During her time as a Ground Equipment Mechanic, Lara-Woodcock was the only female who worked in that capacity at O'Hare.

During the relevant time period, the Manager of Facility and Ground Equipment Maintenance at O'Hare was Thomas Reardon. Lara-Woodcock's supervisor was Phillip Danca, who reported to Reardon. Both Danca and Reardon had the authority to terminate employees. Lara-Woodcock's husband, William Woodcock, is also a United Ground Equipment Mechanic and serves as a union steward.

As a Ground Equipment Mechanic, Lara-Woodcock was required to be a union member. At all times during her employment with United, a Collective Bargaining Agreement (" CBA" ) controlled the terms and conditions of Lara-Woodcock's employment. The CBA set forth the job duties of a Ground Equipment Mechanic as well as the terms and conditions for a leave of absence.

During the relevant time period, United maintained Rules of Conduct for union-represented employees such as Lara-Woodcock. The Rules of Conduct specified violations which would result in discharge unless mitigating factors were applicable. Rule of Conduct No. 8 stated that " [r]efusing to cooperate when ordered to provide information, including written statements, to the Company during an investigation" could result in discharge. Rule of Conduct No. 29 stated that " [f]ailing to comply with a direct order given by a Supervisor or other person in authority" would result in disciplinary action, up to and including discharge. Rule of Conduct No. 33 stated that " [u]nauthorized absence from work" would result in disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.

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A. Lara-Woodcock's Pregnancy and Lifting Restriction

As a Ground Equipment Mechanic, Lara-Woodcock repaired various support equipment used by United at O'Hare. Until January 2008, she worked in the machine shop; she then worked on vehicles on what mechanics referred to as the " floor." (Def.'s SOF Ex. 4 (Lara-Woodcock Dep.) 30:20-31:7, ECF No. 47-7.) Her duties on the floor included putting on tires and brakes, charging and replacing batteries, changing oil, and performing other electrical and mechanical work on the vehicles. ( Id. at 35:24-36:16.) From January 2008 until June 2008, Lara-Woodcock worked the day shift (6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.). For three or four years before that, she had worked the midnight shift (10:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.). Shift selection was based on seniority.

In January 2008, Lara-Woodcock learned she was pregnant with twins. In or about April 2008, she and her husband spoke with Matthew Nordmoe in United's Performance and Labor Department. Lara-Woodcock had concerns about performing her job duties satisfactorily while pregnant and wanted to get her " ducks in a row."

At the time Lara-Woodcock and her husband spoke with Nordmoe, she had no physical restrictions. She and her husband told Nordmoe that, at some point, she might be placed on a lifting restriction or be otherwise unable to perform her job and asked what she should do at that point. A couple of days later, Lara-Woodcock and her husband spoke to Reardon. Danca was also present for the conversation. Lara-Woodcock and her husband informed Reardon that they had gone to the Performance and Labor Department because of her concerns about not being able to perform her job satisfactorily due to the pregnancy. Lara-Woodcock did not ask for a particular accommodation at the time.

On or about May 5, 2008, Lara-Woodcock's doctor placed her on a thirty-pound lifting restriction, in effect through her October 12, 2008, due date. The doctor filled out Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ) paperwork to certify the lifting restriction, but Lara-Woodcock testified that she did not want to request FMLA leave, but only to put the lifting restriction in place. ( Id. at 89:10-90:21.)[2] Shortly thereafter, Lara-Woodcock spoke to Danca about the lifting restriction. She told Danca that she was having pains in her stomach and that her doctor did not want her to lift anything heavy. She asked if someone else could help her lift tires and other things weighing more than thirty pounds. According to Lara-Woodcock, Danca agreed. Lara-Woodcock testified that at the time, there were no tasks other than lifting heavy tires that she could not perform. ( Id. at 93:19-21.)

The parties disagree as to whether the Ground Equipment Mechanic position had a lifting requirement. Lara-Woodcock contends that she could use a machine to lift heavy items. She also points to Reardon's deposition testimony that the job description for a Ground Equipment Mechanic does not state that a mechanic is required to lift a certain amount of weight (Pl.'s SOF Ex. B (Reardon Dep.) 65:11-13, ECF No. 54-3), and that there is no physical test that a mechanic is required to pass 

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(id. at 64:5-24). Reardon also testified, however, that mechanics are required to lift parts and equipment. ( Id. at 66:4-68:2.) Lara-Woodcock testified at deposition that, when she changed tires on certain vehicles during her work on the floor, she had to " pull the tire down and pull it off and then to lift it up . . . . These are pretty big tires, so we're talking 50 pounds or more." (Lara-Woodcock Dep. 38:6-17.) She stated that as her pregnancy progressed, it was " becoming increasingly difficult to lift up these 80-pound tires and put them on the tractor," and that she regularly had to change such tires. ( Id. at 79:23-80:9.)

On June 12, 2008, Reardon instructed Danca to send Lara-Woodcock home because she had been placed on a thirty-pound lifting restriction. Danca testified that he had not had any issues with Lara-Woodcock's performance until that time and had received no complaint from her or other employees that she was unable to do her job. (Pl.'s SOF Ex. C (Danca Dep.) 49:8-20, ECF No. 54-4.) According to United, Lara-Woodcock was sent home because her supervisors believed that her position had a seventy-pound lifting requirement and that she could not perform her job duties with the thirty-pound lifting restriction. United cites the deposition of Richard Bolanowski, Senior Staff Representative for Labor Relations at United during the relevant period. Bolanowski testified that Lara-Woodcock was sent home " [b]ecause it was believed that she had to be able to lift 70 pounds." (Def.'s SOF Ex. 2 (Bolanowski Dep.) 66:6-7, ECF No. 47.) He further testified that although " her supervisor" believed there was a lifting requirement for her position ( id. at 66:15), " there is no requirement for a ground equipment mechanic to be able to lift 70 pounds," and the supervisor's belief was " wrong" ( id. at 68:1-10).

On June 12, 2008, after Lara-Woodcock was sent home, she and her husband again went to speak to Nordmoe in the Performance and Labor Department. In his absence, they spoke to Diane Raucci, a member of United management who is now deceased. Lara-Woodcock told Raucci that she felt she had been discriminated against. Lara-Woodcock told Raucci, " I am not injured, I am pregnant." Raucci sent an email to Bolanowski stating that she told Lara-Woodcock that light duty assignments were available only for occupational injuries. (Pl.'s SOF Ex. 111 (Raucci Email June 12, 2008), ECF No. 54-28.)

Lara-Woodcock was placed on an unpaid FMLA leave and was later placed on Extended Illness status because her condition would last more than sixteen days. On or about July 14, 2008, her doctor completed an Absence Certificate, which Lara-Woodcock submitted to United. Her doctor certified that Lara-Woodcock could perform restricted work as of May 21, 2008, and that she was restricted from lifting more than thirty pounds.

On or about July 17, 2008, Lara-Woodcock filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. On or about August 8, 2008, a Reasonable Accommodation Process (" RAP" ) meeting was held. The RAP meeting was led by Bolanowski and attended by Lara-Woodcock, her husband, Raucci, Supervisor Michael Cklamovski, and two union representatives. According to Lara-Woodcock, at the meeting, she questioned Bolanowski about why she was not accommodated, and he agreed that she should not have been sent home because light-duty work was available that she could perform with the lifting restriction. (Lara-Woodcock Dep. 118:9-21.) After the meeting, Lara-Woodcock's husband prepared a grievance on her behalf seeking back pay and other benefits for the time period she had been placed on Extended

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Illness status. She was paid 43 days' back pay and returned to work as a mechanic on August 11, 2008. Then eight months pregnant, she was placed on the midnight shift on light duty, where she worked without any performance issues or complaints until the twins were born on August 31, 2008.

B. Lara-Woodcock's Request for a Voluntary Furlough

After the birth of the twins, Reardon allowed Lara-Woodcock to stay home on authorized no pay (" ANP" ) status until about August 6, 2009. While on ANP, Lara-Woodcock continued to accrue seniority and received full benefits. She understood that her ANP status would be " week-to-week," as budget and manpower needs permitted.

United's management had the right to determine how many employees it needed for a particular job at a particular time, to establish staffing levels for each position, to change staffing levels from time to time, and to change start and end times. In or about October 2008, while Lara-Woodcock was still on ANP status, United announced an involuntary furlough. On or about October 2, 2008, United notified Lara-Woodcock that she would be furloughed on December 7, 2008. Under the CBA, furlough is done by seniority. Lara-Woodcock was identified for involuntary furlough because she did not have enough seniority to hold her position. On November 5, 2008, United notified Lara-Woodcock by letter that the expected date she would be furloughed had been extended to on or about January 11, 2009. A letter to Lara-Woodcock dated December 17, 2008, stated that she would be placed on layoff status as of January 11, 2009. (Def.'s SOF Ex. 20 (Notice of Furlough Dec. 17, 2008), ECF No. 47-22.) Lara-Woodcock testified that she informed Reardon that she would accept the furlough. (Lara-Woodcock Dep. 150:19-22.) In a letter dated January 7, 2009, however, United informed Lara-Woodcock that she would not be placed on involuntary furlough after all. (Def.'s SOF Ex. 21 (Cancellation of Furlough Notice Jan. 7, 2000), ECF No. 47-23.) She remained off work on ANP status.

Although there were no provisions in the CBA for a voluntary furlough, from time to time, United offered voluntary furloughs to those employees who had not been identified for involuntary furlough, in an attempt to minimize the impact of involuntary furloughs. An employee continues to accrue seniority while on voluntary furlough but does not receive benefits. Reardon testified that " from time to time the company at a corporate level within the mechanics group--that generally meant San Francisco labor relations--would offer, in an attempt to minimize the impact of involuntary furloughs, . . . voluntary furlough programs to employees in the mechanic classification." (Reardon Dep. 42:21-43:3.) He testified that voluntary furloughs were handled on a case-by-case basis. ( Id. at 136:5-10.)

For the furlough period effective January 11, 2009, the time window to request a voluntary furlough was between November 3, 2008, and December 5, 2008. William Woodcock learned about the voluntary furlough in or about October 2008. He testified that he informed Lara-Woodcock about it (Def.'s SOF Ex. 8 (Woodcock Dep.) 50:10-21, ECF No. 47-10), although she testified that neither of them found out about the voluntary furlough until December 2008 (Lara-Woodcock Dep. 134:17-19). Lara-Woodcock and her husband both testified at deposition that the deadline for the voluntary furlough was December 2008. (Lara-Woodcock Dep. 132:15; Woodcock Dep. 63:6-9.) Lara-Woodcock testified that she " verbally requested a voluntary furlough in the end of January [2009]." (Lara-Woodcock Dep. 63:10-13.) Woodcock communicated with Reardon regarding

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Lara-Woodcock's request for a voluntary furlough in or about January 2009, and with Kellee Allain in the Labor Relations Department in March 2009.

According to United, Lara-Woodcock's requests for a voluntary furlough were denied because they were made after the deadline to request a voluntary furlough. Reardon and Bolanowski testified at deposition that United was not able to grant a voluntary furlough if an employee requested one outside the time frame for doing so, or at a time when there was no furlough period. (Reardon Dep. 136:18-23; Bolanowski Dep. 31:10-12.) Reardon testified that United could not grant a voluntary furlough outside of a furlough period because there were no provisions to do so in the CBA, and that he had no authority to approve a request for a voluntary furlough. (Reardon Dep. 134:24-135:4, 135:23-136:5.)

Lara-Woodcock contests that any such deadline existed in practice. She points to the fact that a voluntary furlough was approved for Claudio Prunotto, another Ground Equipment Mechanic, in 2008. Prunotto had more seniority than Lara-Woodcock and had not been identified for involuntary furlough. He submitted a voluntary furlough application on August 10, 2008, and Reardon received the request on August 11, 2008. Although he was Prunotto's supervisor, Reardon did not personally make the decision to approve the request; it was approved by United management. Prunotto began his voluntary furlough on October 18, 2008. Although still employed by United, Prunotto has not worked since that date. Prunotto testified that he was asked to return from voluntary furlough in approximately November 2011. (Pl.'s SOF Ex. D (Prunotto Dep.) 33:10-11, ECF No. 54-5.) He did not return to work, however, and has remained on voluntary furlough. He testified that he incurred a non-work-related shoulder injury while on voluntary furlough. ( Id. at 40:23-41:10.)

C. Lara-Woodcock's Requests for Leave

After Lara-Woodcock had been on ANP status for almost a year, Reardon directed her to return to work on August 6, 2009. Reardon testified that he received a directive that he could no longer allow Lara-Woodcock to ...

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