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Santiago v. United Air Lines, Inc.

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

December 29, 2014


Page 695

Wanda Raquel Santiago, Plaintiff, Pro se, Falls Church, VA.

For United Air Lines Inc, doing business as United Continental Holdings, Defendant: Tom A Jerman, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Jones Day, Washington, DC; Aparna Bhagwan Joshi, Omelveny & Myers, LLP, Washington, DC; Elizabeth Bethea McRee, Jones Day, Chicago, IL.

Page 696


Gary Feinerman, United States District Judge.

Among the perks of working for an airline is the ability to fly for free or at reduced rates. United Airlines is no exception. Pursuant to its " pass travel" program, United issues to all of its employees, both active and retired, ticket vouchers for travel on any United flight--contingent, however, on there being an unsold seat on the plane. Doc. 163 at 3-4 (reported at 969 F.Supp.2d 955, 958 (N.D. Ill. 2013)). In the event there are fewer empty seats than employees seeking to travel, United must prioritize their requests. 969 F.Supp.2d at 959. When Wanda Santiago, a United flight attendant, retired in 2009 after 33 years with the airline, retirees with more than 25 years' service always had the highest priority. Ibid. That changed after United merged with Continental Airlines in 2010. Now, in some circumstances, active employees have priority over retirees, even those like Santiago with lengthy tenures. Ibid.

Disappointed with this change to the pass travel program, Santiago sued United and her union, the Association of Flight Attendants (" AFA" ), under the Railway Labor Act (" RLA" ), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. Doc. 1. Alleging that the change violated the collective bargaining agreement (" CBA" ) negotiated by United and the AFA, Santiago claimed that United violated the RLA by failing to submit to arbitration her challenge to the change, and asked the court to compel United to submit the dispute to arbitration. Santiago also claimed that the AFA breached its duty of fair representation under the RLA by refusing to assist her in pursuing her challenge. The court denied United's motion to dismiss, Docs. 62-63 (reported at 2012 WL 2049486 (June 6, 2012)), but granted the AFA's, Docs. 103-104 (reported at 2012 WL 3583057 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 17, 2012)).

United then moved for summary judgment. Doc. 128. The court denied the motion on the ground that Santiago, although retired, is still an " employee" under the relevant provision of the RLA, meaning that her dispute is subject to mandatory arbitration. 969 F.Supp.2d at 965-66. In addition, the court ordered United, pursuant to Rule 56(f), " to file a brief explaining ... why Plaintiff is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law" on Santiago's request that the court enjoin United to conduct the arbitration. Doc. 162. Before responding to the Rule 56(f) notice, United sought and received leave to depose Santiago regarding whether she had exhausted the company's internal grievance procedures. Docs. 168, 172. And in the event it turned out that judgment could not be entered for either party as a matter of law, the court set trial for February 9, 2015. Doc. 201. In its Rule 56(f) brief, United not only opposes the court's granting summary judgment to Santiago, but also seeks summary judgment on the ground that Santiago failed to exhaust the company's internal grievance procedures. Doc. 188. Santiago responded in a series of filings. Docs. 189, 193-197, 199-200. For the following reasons, summary judgment is granted to United.


Much of the factual and legal background is set forth in the court's previous opinions in this case and so need not be recounted in full. 969 F.Supp.2d at 957-59; 2012 WL 2049486, at *1-2. All facts are stated as favorably to Santiago as permitted by the record. See Hanners v. Trent, 674 F.3d 683, 691 (7th Cir. 2012).

Santiago worked for United as a flight attendant from 1977 through 2009. 969 F.Supp.2d at 958. As mentioned, United through its pass travel program has long

Page 697

offered active and retired employees the chance to fly on United flights for free or at reduced rates if open seats are available. Ibid. Continental had a similar program, but with different rules--including, as pertinent here, the rule regarding relative boarding priority in the event there were fewer open seats than active and retired employees seeking to fly. Id. at 959. After merging with Continental in 2010, United consolidated the two airlines' programs. Ibid. Under the new program, each active and retired employee is given eight one-way travel passes each year, which entitles the employee to free travel with a boarding priority level based purely on years of service. Ibid. For flights taken beyond those eight flights per year, however, current employees have boarding priority over retirees. Ibid. United announced the new program in March 2011. Ibid. Santiago learned of it on March 30, 2011. Doc. 188-2 at 5.

Santiago believes that United's unilateral decision to change the pass travel program's priority rules violated the CBA. 969 F.Supp.2d at 958. United disagrees, arguing that the CBA gives it the right to modify or even eliminate the program in its sole discretion. Ibid. The RLA governs all such disputes between airlines and their employees: " The disputes between an employee or group of employees and a carrier or carriers by air growing out of grievances, or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions, ... shall be handled in the usual manner up to and including the chief operating officer of the carrier designated to handle such disputes; but, failing to reach an adjustment in this manner, the disputes may be referred by petition of the parties or by either party to an appropriate adjustment board[.]" 45 U.S.C. § 184. " Such boards of adjustment may be established by agreement between employees and carriers," ibid., and United and the AFA have established such a board, called the United-AFA System Board of Adjustment (" System Board" ), ...

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