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Moss v. United Airlines, Inc.

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

November 12, 2019

Michael Moss, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
United Airlines, Inc.; United Continental Holdings, Inc.; United Air Lines, Inc.; and Continental Airlines, Inc., Defendants.



         Michael Moss alleges that pilots for the defendant airlines were deprived of sick time accrual (Count I), vacation time accrual (Count II), and pension payments (Count III), during military leave in violation of the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (the “Act”). The Court certified a subclass for each count. See R. 68. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all three counts, R. 92, and Plaintiffs have cross-moved for summary judgment on Counts I and II, R. 95. Plaintiffs' motion is denied, and Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The Court considers the entire evidentiary record and must view all of the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from that evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Horton v. Pobjecky, 883 F.3d 941, 948 (7th Cir. 2018). To defeat summary judgment, a nonmovant must produce more than a “mere scintilla of evidence” and come forward with “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Johnson v. Advocate Health and Hosps. Corp., 892 F.3d 887, 894, 896 (7th Cir. 2018). Ultimately, summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmovant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).


         In 2010, defendants United Air Lines, Inc., and Continental Airlines, Inc., merged by becoming wholly-owned subsidiaries of defendant United Continental Holdings, Inc. See R. 99-1 at 2-3 (¶ 1). In 2013, United Air Lines and Continental Airlines merged into United Airlines, Inc. Id. (unlike the merging entity, the name of the merged entity contains no space between “air” and “lines”) In 2019, the holding company changed its name to United Airlines Holdings, Inc. Id. United and Continental pilots were governed by separate collective bargaining agreements until 2014 when a single agreement was adopted for all pilots of the merged entity. See Id. at 39 (¶ 32).[1]

         Before the merger, United pilots accrued sick days during all periods of military leave, see Id. at 41 (¶ 35), and accrued vacation days during the first 30 days of military leave, see Id. at 42 (¶ 37). Before the merger, Continental pilots accrued sick days through the first 30 days of military leave, see Id. at 44 (¶ 40), and accrued vacation days through the first 90 days of military leave, see Id. 45-47 (¶ 42). Since the merger, Defendants' pilots accrue vacation days and sick days through 90 days of military leave. See Id. at 14-16, 20 (¶¶ 11, 16). Plaintiffs claim that the vacation and sick time accrual policies both pre- and post-merger deprived them of benefits during military leave in violation of the Act.


         The Act provides that “[a] person who . . . has an obligation to perform service in a uniformed service shall not be denied . . . any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that . . . performance of service, or obligation.” 38 U.S.C. § 4311(a). Further, the Act makes a distinction between “seniority” based benefits and “other” benefits:

A person who is reemployed under this chapter is entitled to the seniority and other rights and benefits determined by seniority that the person had on the date of the commencement of service in the uniformed services plus the additional seniority and rights and benefits that such person would have attained if the person had remained continuously employed.

38 U.S.C. § 4316(a);

[A] person who is absent from a position of employment by reason of service in the uniformed services shall be . . . entitled to such other rights and benefits not determined by seniority as are generally provided by the employer of the person to employees having similar seniority, status, and pay who are on furlough or leave of absence[.]

38 U.S.C. § 4316(b)(1)(B). A benefit is considered seniority-based when “the nature of the benefit [is] a reward for length of service, rather than a form of short-term compensation for services rendered.” Coffy v. Republic Steel Corp., 447 U.S. 191, 197-98 (1980); see also DeLee v. City of Plymouth, Ind., 773 F.3d 172 (7th Cir. 2014).

         The Supreme Court has recognized that the problem with this standard is that “even the most traditional kinds of seniority privileges could be as easily tied to a work requirement as to the more usual criterion of time as an employee.” Coffy, 447 U.S. at 203. In other words, there is no objective difference between a “work requirement” (or “compensation for services rendered”) and “time as an employee” (or “length of service”), because employees spend their time working. The work accomplished and the time spent accomplishing it are two sides of the same job-coin. True, length of service-or seniority-is generally measured in years, whereas employees are often compensated for services rendered by the hour. But both involve providing a benefit (whether money, vacation time, etc.) per unit of time worked. The inherent tie between time and work means that even rewards for length of service over months or years can be framed as compensation for services rendered. See Alabama Power Co. v. Davis, 431 U.S. 581, 592-93 (1977) (“It is obvious that pension payments have some resemblance to compensation for work performed. . . . The same observations, however, can be made about any benefit and therefore are of little assistance in determining whether a particular benefit recompenses labor or rewards longevity with an employer.”).

         Since all benefits can be described with reference to a certain period of time worked, “the particular formula” by which “benefits [are] calculated, ” i.e., the length of the period of time worked necessary to receive any given benefit, is not the “crucial factor” in determining whether the benefit is seniority-based for purposes of the Act. See Alabama Power, 431 U.S. at 592, and Coffy, 447 U.S. at 203. Rather, it is the “real nature” of the benefit that is key to determining whether a benefit is a “reward for length of service” or “compensation for services rendered.” Alabama Power, 431 U.S. at 588-89.

         By “real nature” the Supreme Court appears to mean whether the benefit is a future-oriented longevity incentive, or backward-looking compensation for work already performed. The Supreme Court has held that benefits like pensions, severance pay, or unemployment pay are seniority-based because they concern an exchange of financial security for an employee's long-term commitment to an employer, i.e., accrual of seniority. See Accardi v. Penn. R. Co., 383 U.S. 225, 230 (1966) (“[The] use of the label ‘compensated service' cannot obscure the fact that the real nature of these payments was compensation for loss of jobs. And the cost to an employee of losing his job is not measured by how much work he did in the past-no matter how calculated-but by the rights and benefits he forfeits by giving up his job.”) (emphasis added); Alabama Power, 431 U.S. at 593-94 (pension credit was held to be seniority-based because a period of years is required for a pension to vest and the purpose of a pension is to assure financial security of long-time employees in retirement); Coffy, 447 U.S. at 205 (“[T]he purpose and function of the [weekly supplemental unemployment benefits] is to provide economic security during periods of layoff to employees who have ...

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