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Agbaniyaka v. Continental Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 12, 2018

CONTINENTAL AIRLINES, INC., now known as "United Airlines, Inc." and UNITED AIRLINES, INC., Defendants.


          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         A former Continental Airlines, Inc. ("Continental") pilot, Plaintiff brings this action against United Airlines, Inc. ("UA"), alleging disparate treatment, retaliation, and hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII").[1] UA now moves for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The Court decides the matter without oral argument. FED. R. ClV. P. 78(b). For the reasons that follow, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[2] A man of African descent, Plaintiff was born in Nigeria, where he completed his aviation education. Decl. of Amanda Inskeep ("Inskeep Decl."), Ex. A, Dep. of Isaac Agbaniyaka 36:25-37:1, Mar. 17, 2016 ("Pl's Dep"), ECF No. 114-3; Decl. of Edward Trueblood ("Trueblood Decl."), Ex. A, Pl's Dep. 28:1-16, ECF No. 124. He moved to the United States in 1995. Pl's Dep. 36:25-37:1. In 2001, Plaintiff began work as a Continental pilot. Pl's Dep. 45:14-17. In between his hiring and termination dates, Plaintiff and other pilots were furloughed after the September 11th terrorist attacks. SMF ¶ 6. Following his furlough, in 2005, Plaintiff took a leave of absence and returned to Continental in 2006. Pl's Dep. 50:21-23. Continental then terminated Plaintiff in 2011. Inskeep Decl., Ex. E., Pl's Dep. Ex. 12.

         In 2005, Continental and the Air Line Pilots Association-the exclusive bargaining representative of Continental pilots-entered into a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") that set out the terms and conditions of employment. Decl. of Wayne Slaughter, Ex. C ("Slaughter Decl."), ECF No. 114-4. The CBA permitted Continental the right to compel a pilot to undergo a Fitness for Duty ("FFD") examination if it had, among other reasons, "reasonable cause to question a pilot's ability to perform his duties." Id.

         While at Continental, Plaintiff flew three types of aircraft and, in each case, had to satisfy initial and recurrent training requirements. SMF ]f]f 3, 19-20. The initial training qualification programs involved ground school, flight simulator and computer-based trainings, and initial operating experience ("IOE"). Id. \ 19. IOE means flying the aircraft with an instructor pilot and actual passengers. Id. \ 20. After completing IOE, a pilot is deemed qualified and can then fly regularly scheduled flights. Id. \ 23. Once qualified, pilots undergo recurrent trainings and evaluations throughout the year. Id. \ 24.

         Whether in a simulated or live-flying environment with other pilots, Plaintiff received substandard pilot proficiency grades. Decl. of Clifford Pittman ]f]f 9, 29-31, 35 ("Pittman Decl."), ECF No. 114-5; Inskeep Decl., Ex C, Dep. of William Blocker 21:19-23:13, 71:12-19, Mar. 15, 2017 ("Blocker Dep."). In such cases, Plaintiff went on "short cycle" status, which meant reducing the time between normal training and assessment intervals. Pittman Decl. fflf 5-6; Pl's Dep. 150:11-22. Being placed in short cycle status happened to Plaintiff more than once. Pittman Decl. If 11, Ex. A. After an instructor rated Plaintiff below proficient in a February 2011 flight simulator training and in reviewing Plaintiffs training history, Continental's Training Department decided to stop Plaintiffs training. Id. \\ 32-3 4; Blocker Dep. 23:1-12. This left Plaintiff's supervisory chief pilot with a decision: either terminate Plaintiff or start the FFD process.

         Instead of terminating Plaintiff's employment for failure to perform, the chief pilot authorized an FFD exam to determine if a medical issue impacted Plaintiffs flying abilities. Inskeep Decl., Ex. B, Dep. of Fred Stankovich 57:2-58:7, Apr. 6, 2017; Pittman Decl. ¶ 34; Pl's Dep. Ex. 12. Once it started, Plaintiff took actions to stop the exam. First, through an attorney, he filed a disparate treatment complaint over the February 2011 flight simulator training event and then later raised additional discriminatory claims. SMF TfTf 124, 131-38. Upon receiving the more recent allegations, the chief pilot suspended the FFD process until Continental's employee compliance manager completed an investigation. Pl's Dep. Ex. 10; Slaughter Decl. fflf 2-3. The investigator found all the complaints unsubstantiated. SMF ¶ 140. Second, Plaintiff filed a union grievance, which was denied. SMF ¶¶ 115-16.

         With the discrimination complaints unfounded and after affording extra time to complete the FFD exam, Plaintiff refused to complete it. Pl's Dep. Ex. 10. In response, Continental terminated his employment. SMF ¶ 122. Plaintiff then filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") charge and UA admitted that the EEOC issued Plaintiff a "Right to Sue" letter which gave rise to this suit. Pl's Mem., Ex. A, ECF No. 21-1; Defs.' Answer 1 8, ECF No. 47.

         UA now moves for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff failed to meet its pilot performance expectations and, in any event, he cannot show how Continental's articulated reason for termination was a pretext for discrimination. See Mem. in Supp. Defs Mot. Summ. J. 18-27, ECF No. 114-1. UA also argues the Court must dismiss the retaliation claim on the same job performance grounds. Id. at 27-29. Finally, UA contends Plaintiff's unlawful harassment claims, taken as a whole, lack the required severity or pervasiveness to support a hostile work environment finding. Id. at 29-32.

         Plaintiff opposes, arguing the continued training requirements and the FFD exam served as pretext for discrimination because he performed his job satisfactorily. Mem. of Law in Opp'n to Defs Mot. for Summ. J. 12-13, 18-19, ECF No. 123. Plaintiff also argues Continental terminated him in retaliation for filing the discrimination complaints. Id. at 18. In reply, UA reiterates its arguments and contends Plaintiffs Statement of Material Facts ("PSMF"), ECF No. 125, and supporting declarations thereto, contain improper argument, disputes to non-material facts, and contradictory statements. UA's Reply Br. 1-15, ECF No. 126; Defs Reply to PSMF 2-10, ECF No. 128.


         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 Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 340 (3d Cir. 1990). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party and is material if it will affect the outcome of the trial under governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In its review, the Court considers all evidence and inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007).

         III. ...

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