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Atkinson v. UA Airlines

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

January 4, 2017

Anthony J. Atkinson, Plaintiff,
UA Airlines, Defendant.


          Manish S. Shah United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Anthony J. Atkinson alleged that his former employer, UA Airlines, fired him on the basis of his age and race and in retaliation for making a race-discrimination claim. Defendant moved for summary judgment, and during the briefing of this motion, Plaintiff withdrew his age-discrimination claim, leaving only the Title VII discrimination and retaliation charges at issue. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. For the following reasons, defendant's motion is granted.

         I. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment obviates the need for a trial where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To determine whether any genuine fact issue exists, a court must assess the proof as presented in the record, including depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits, view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). The court may not weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations. Omnicare, Inc. v. UnitedHealth Grp., Inc., 629 F.3d 697, 704 (7th Cir. 2011). If a claim or defense is factually unsupported, the court should dispose of it at the summary judgment stage. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of proving there is no genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. In response, the non-moving party cannot rest on bare pleadings but must designate specific material facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324; Insolia v. Philip Morris Inc., 216 F.3d 596, 598 (7th Cir. 2000).

         II. Background

         Defendant UA Airlines employed Plaintiff Anthony Atkinson from approximately October 28, 1985 to October 6, 2014. Atkinson is African-American.

         United maintains an Employee Handbook called the Working Together Guidelines, and Atkinson received a copy. Within the Guidelines, a “Professionalism” policy states in relevant part that employees must “communicate and perform all duties in a safe, courteous, helpful, competent, dependable and businesslike manner[, ] act in ways that reflect favorably on the company, yourself and your co-workers[, and] refrain from aggressive or threatening behavior, whether through words or actions.” Additionally, the Guidelines contain a Violence-Free Workplace Policy stating in part:

United Airlines is committed to providing a work environment that is free from acts and/or threats of violence. We recognize that our co-workers face some significant challenges every day when they report to work, but dealing with threats and physical violence should not be one of them. United Airlines will not tolerate any form of violence and/or threat of violence in our workplaces or to co-workers as they perform their work duties. We believe that all co-workers have a basic right to be safe and secure in the workplace. The Company will not tolerate any behavior which endangers the safety of its co-workers or customers.
Co-workers who violate this policy may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including discharge. Customers and other non-co-workers are also subject to this policy while on United Airlines' premises or otherwise interacting with United Airlines co-workers during the course of, or as a result of, performing their work duties.

         In 2013, Atkinson read and signed the Terminal Lead Minimum Expectations, which state in part that Terminal Leads shall “[l]ead and direct your people setting a good professional example.” Atkinson began his tenure with United as a mechanic in San Francisco and transferred to the same position at Chicago O'Hare International Airport in 2003. In 2012 he became a Lead Line Technician, a promotion that accrued strictly as a result of his seniority. From October 1985 to July of 2011, Atkinson did not receive any discipline for violent or aggressive language or behavior in the workplace, nor was he aware of being investigated for such behavior.

         A. The Bokowy-Martinez Incident

         On July 2, 2011, Atkinson was late for his shift. The lead, Jerry Martinez, assigned another employee, Tom Bokowy, to Atkinson's area and reassigned Atkinson to a different area once he arrived. Atkinson then called his supervisor, Robert Raizk, to complain. Atkinson asked Raizk, in reference to Martinez, “How do you want me to bring him down, by the throat?” Atkinson does not deny saying this, but clarifies that he was joking. Bokowy complained to Martinez that Atkinson threatened him and told him to “shut the fuck up, ” which Atkinson does not deny but says was prompted by Bokowy yelling at him and interrupting him.

         This incident resulted in Atkinson being held out of service, suspended, losing a week of pay, and receiving a Level 3 discipline, which stated in part: “Anthony on July 2, 2011 you were held out of service after an investigation found you had violated the working together guidelines and the violence-free workplace policy. We found that the remarks you made to your co-workers were threatening and intimidating. . . . Threatening behavior is unacceptable and under no circumstances will physical violence or threatening behavior be tolerated. . . . It is with the violation of these guidelines that we are proposing a Level 3 and asking you to seek the assistance from [the Employee Assistance Program] offered by United Airlines.” Garrett West, Senior Manager of Technical Operations, issued Atkinson's Level 3 discipline. West is white and is aware that Atkinson is African-American.

         Atkinson did not go to the EAP as requested. On September 19, 2011, after challenging the disciplinary action against him, Atkinson received a response from Employee Compliance Senior Manager Wayne Slaughter, who affirmed that the discipline was justified.

         B. The Le Pla Incident

         On December 16, 2013, day-shift Lead Line Technician Glenn Le Pla told his shift manager Brian Kummerer that Le Pla and Atkinson had gotten into an altercation in the lead's office. Kummerer collected witness statements from Jerome Bovy, Bob Jensky, Matt Billen, Michael Churas, Doug Adams, Atkinson and Le Pla. All were witnesses to the incident and all but Atkinson are white. Kummerer turned the witness statements over to Linda Ross, Human Resources Manager, who reviewed them. Additionally, Atkinson made a complaint against Le Pla to United's ethics and compliance hotline, which Ross investigated. She personally interviewed all seven witnesses during the course of her investigation.

         According to witnesses, during the heated confrontation the men yelled, screamed, cursed, and slammed doors. Atkinson jumped or lunged out of his seat, stood close to Le Pla's face in a threatening manner, and “verbally attacked” Le Pla. Atkinson alleges that Le Pla slammed the door on Atkinson's hand twice, injuring it, but the other witnesses do not corroborate this. Le Pla does admit to slamming the door, but Ross's understanding based on her investigation was that he slammed the door so he could speak privately with Atkinson. Atkinson reported the incident to his foreman and saw a doctor for injuries to his hand. He also provided a typed written statement, which he had someone else sign for him due to his hand injury. West decided not to place either Le Pla or Atkinson out of service at this time.

         On December 23, 2013, Atkinson told Ross that he had been assaulted during the Le Pla Incident and was upset that no one had contacted him. That day, Atkinson met with West and Kummerer, with Ross participating by telephone. During the meeting, Atkinson grew agitated as he explained his side of the story. Atkinson admits to saying in reference to Le Pla, “I'm going to fight him to his death if-if this happens again.” However, he denies saying, “People keep pushing me, I'm going to take them out, ” which both Ross and West recall him saying. Atkinson also denies that West ever asked him to sit down or calm down, though West recalls doing so in response to Atkinson's “very agitated, aggravated, and aggressive” demeanor.

         Pursuant to policy, Atkinson received a “close out” letter on February 4, 2014, from Ross in response to his complaint to the ethics and compliance hotline. The letter stated in part, “I was unable to substantiate that an assault occurred; however the facts support that there was an argument and the Day Shift Lead did swing the door open abruptly which may have struck your hand.” Ross also noted that Le Pla's behavior was in violation of the Working Together Guidelines and Violence-Free Workplace. The close-out letter did not mention any potential or recommended discipline with respect to Atkinson, since he was the complainant in this particular investigation and discussion of a complainant's infractions would not have been dealt with in a close-out letter.

         Nevertheless, Atkinson was not disciplined or verbally counseled on or immediately after December 23. He was not advised that his fight with Le Pla had violated United's policies until he received notice of his pending termination on April 1, 2014. Ross did recommend ...

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