Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Williams v. United Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 25, 2019





         Plaintiff Nanci Williams brought this action against her former employer Defendant United Airlines, Inc. (“United”) asserting claims including wrongful termination based on age and disability. United moves for the summary judgment. The Court held a hearing on June 21, 2019. For the reasons discussed below, United's motion is GRANTED.[1]


         A. Factual Background

         Williams, who is currently fifty-two years old, began working as a flight attendant for United in 1990. Williams Decl. (dkt. 73-1) ¶¶ 3, 5. At all times relevant to this case she was in the highest salary tier for United flight attendants based on her seniority. Id. ¶ 16.

         Williams suffered an injury when an airplane she was working on rapidly and unexpectedly descended in 2003, slamming Williams against both the ceiling and the floor of the airplane and resulting in diagnoses of a concussion, cervical spine sprain, chronic myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and an auto-immune disease. Id. ¶ 6. Williams has experienced a wide range of symptoms in the years since the injury, and a worker's compensation decision attributed all of her symptoms to that incident. Id. Williams attempted to return to work, but took medical leave due to severe pain from 2003 to January of 2007. Id. ¶ 7. “When [Williams] returned to work in late 2008 or early 2009, ”[2] United offered employees a voluntary furlough, and Williams accepted a furlough through March of 2013. Id. ¶ 8. Williams worked until September of 2013, but returned to medical leave at that time, which was classified as a “nonoccupational medical leave of absence” under United's policies. Id. ¶ 10; Khoury Decl. (dkt. 67-1) Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 300:6-9.

         Williams's treating physician Dr. Teitelbaum provided United with “Absence Certificates” that United required Williams to submit monthly even though Dr. Teitelbaum informed United that Williams's condition was permanent and did not require such frequent reevaluation. Williams Decl. ¶¶ 9, 11-14. Williams found United's conduct while she was on leave to be difficult and harassing, including United's repeated requests for Absence Certificates, failure to provide its policy on medical leave to Dr. Teitelbaum, unresponsiveness to Williams's calls and faxes, and apparent failure to keep notes regarding Williams's leave and medical condition. Id. ¶¶ 12-15. Williams testified, however, that United never failed to provide assistance that she requested and granted each of her requests for medical leave. Khoury Decl. Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 164:14-25, 192:5-7. Williams also testified that she never attempted to engage in an interactive process with United regarding accommodation of any disability, because her union had told her that United's program for such a process is not effective, and Williams therefore did not trust United to engage with her. Id. at 305:4-307:5.

         In December of 2015, Williams's work restrictions based on her medical condition included prohibitions against standing for extended periods of time, assisting passengers with physical tasks, managing crew and passengers, and resolving conflicts between passengers, among other limitations. Williams Decl. ¶ 17. The restriction perhaps most relevant to this case is as follows: “No exposure to varying climate conditions and air pressures.” Id.; see also Haralabopoulos Decl. (dkt. 68) Ex. 8 (United document summarizing Williams's medical restrictions).

         That month, Williams, her husband, and her parents boarded a United flight from San Francisco to Cancun, Mexico, using Williams's privilege as an employee to fly for free or a significant discount so long as space was available on the flight. See Williams Decl. ¶ 23; Khoury Decl. Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 155:21-156:3. Under United's rules for such travel, Williams was responsible for the behavior of her family members, and Williams understood that at the time of the incident. Khoury Decl. Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 156:4-7, 245:12-22, 286:24-287:9. Williams also understood that her employment could (but not necessarily would) be terminated for a violation of the discounted travel rules. Id. at 264:4-8.

         As the airplane started to taxi from the gate, Williams and her husband began to argue about a cup of coffee, and the dispute became physical. Id. at 151:5-18, 152:1-16. According to Williams, her husband began to choke her, and Williams scratched his face in self-defense, drawing blood.[3] Id. at 151:19-22; Williams Decl. ¶ 23. Williams, her husband, and her father all left their seats despite the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign being lit at the time. See Khoury Decl. Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 151:23-25, 152:20-25, 154:23-25. Williams's husband and father went to the first class area near the flight deck in the front of the plane, Williams's husband asked to be let off the plane, and a flight attendant reported that Williams's father called her husband a “pussy.” See Id. at 155:1-12, 245:9-11, 261:19-262:4. The plane returned to the gate as a result of the altercation. Id. at 154:12-13, 169:9-19.

         Authorities met the plane at the gate, and Williams was escorted off the plane and taken into custody by San Francisco police at an airport substation, where she was told she would be charged with felony domestic violence. Id. at 178:17-19, 179:2-7, 182:2-11, 262:5-12. Photographs taken by the police showed scratches on Williams's husband's face. Id. at 310:16- 20. Williams agreed at her deposition that her family members violated United's rules for conduct when traveling on an employee's pass. Id. at 264:10-13. The incident caused a delay of approximately twenty-six minutes for the other passengers on the flight. Id. at 170:25-171:9.

         The day of the incident, Lisa Lujan (a representative of United's “Corporate Security - Compliance” department) sent an email to several other United employees advising them that Williams was taken into custody on a felony charge by police as a result of the fight. Haralabopoulos Decl. Ex. 4. Carol Bertacchi, a manager of United's “Inflight Services” department, responded to that email the next day, noting that Lujan had inquired as to Williams's status. Id. Bertacchi reported that Williams has been out on a leave of absence but will need to meet with her supervisor to discuss several issues without regard to what happens with her criminal case:

- her conduct and arrest on the flight
- regardless of the fact that it is her husband she violated her actions on the aircraft falls into violence in the workplace
- her conduct also violates our pass policies for conduct while traveling, and resulted in the plane having to return to the gate


         On December 8, 2015, Williams met with her supervisor Lee Ann Butler-Owens and other United employees to discuss the incident. Gutierrez Decl. (dkt. 73-2) Ex. D (meeting notes taken by another employee). Butler-Owens told Williams that United was more concerned about the flight delay that the incident caused than about Williams's arrest, that Williams needed to write a report, and that the incident could lead to termination of her employment. Id. Williams met again with the same group of employees on December 10, 2015. Gutierrez Decl. Ex. E (meeting notes taken by another employee). Most of that discussion focused on the circumstances of the disturbance on the plane, although Butler-Owens also informed Williams that, despite the generally applicable policy that employees did not have to ask permission to travel, she would need to submit something from her doctor to show that she was able to fly, and Butler-Owens also briefly asked Williams if she was traveling for vacation. Id.

         Williams sent a letter to United dated December 26, 2015 “apologiz[ing] for causing a disturbance with [her] husband that led to the plane returning to the gate and having the crew and passengers delayed from taking off, ” and “for getting out of [her] seat while the seatbelt sign was on.” Haralabopoulos Decl. Ex. 6. Williams's husband submitted a similar letter apologizing for the disturbance, for leaving his seat and walking towards the cockpit while the plane was moving, for asking to leave the plane, and for causing the delay. Haralabopoulos Decl. Ex. 7.

         Williams focuses on evidence that, in the aftermath of the December 2015 incident, various United employees (including but not limited to Butler-Owens, labor strategy specialist Elizabeth Cavanagh, and Employee Service Center Operations manager Carlos Rivera) investigated whether Williams was in fact subject to the medical restrictions that she had claimed, beginning with suspicion that she would not have been able to fly as a passenger with such restrictions, and including a review of social media posts that United employees apparently believed suggested that Williams was healthier than she had indicated. See, e.g., Gutierrez Decl. Exs. I, J, O, P. A registered nurse employed by United sent Rivera an email on December 8, 2015 stating that, based on Williams's medical restrictions, he “would assume [she] is severely disabled and not appropriate to fly SA [apparently meaning ‘space available'] anywhere.” Gutierrez Decl. Ex. J. Rivera sent an email to multiple United nurses on January 28, 2016 asking them to create a document indicating that air travel would not be recommended for Williams and would exacerbate her condition, but a different nurse responded that she was “unable to write that [Williams's] condition(s) would be exacerbated by her pass travel” because it “would be considered diagnosing the employee and out of scope of practice as an RN.” Gutierrez Decl. Ex. I.[4]

         Butler-Owens sent Williams a “Performance Letter of Charge” on January 19, 2016. Haralabopoulos Decl. Ex. 5. The letter included a relatively long paragraph describing the altercation on the flight, and asserted more briefly that Williams was “also in violation of the Working Together Guidelines with respect to Honesty in that this occurred while you were on a medical leave of absence, purporting to be too ill to work as a flight attendant.” Id. The letter informed Williams that a conference would occur on February 1, 2016[5] to determine what if any action would be taken. Id. Williams asserts in her declaration that this letter stated that her employment was terminated, but no such statement appears in the letter, and the sentence she quotes in her declaration in fact appears in an April 2016 letter from Peter Haralabopoulos, the director of the Inflight Services department (i.e., United's flight attendants) in San Francisco and the hearing officer responsible for determining what discipline should be imposed. See Williams Decl. ¶ 26; Gutierrez Decl. Exs. F, G.

         Rivera sent Cavanagh and other United employees an email on January 27, 2016 with the subject line “SFOSW Nancy [sic] Williams u140114 - Possible Fraud, ” stating that Rivera was not sure if they were aware of Williams's travel to Cancun while on leave, listing her restrictions, and concluding that “there is NO WAY she would be able to travel anywhere” and that her restrictions might be fraudulent. Gutierrez Decl. Ex. O. Cavanagh responded three minutes later that she “brought it up and we are terminating her.” Id.

         On April 4, 2016, Williams attended a conference with Peter Haralabopoulos, Butler-Owens, and union representative Chris Black. Khoury Decl. Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 247:12-23. Haralabopoulos served as the hearing officer, and because he expected that he would serve in that role for any discipline that might be imposed, he states that he had not played any part in the investigation leading up to the hearing. Haralabopoulos Decl. ¶ 14. The union had an opportunity to present information on Williams's behalf, but the two letters it offered (from Dr. Teitelbaum and Williams's husband) were not submitted until the date of the hearing, and Haralabopoulos rejected them as untimely. See Khoury Decl. Ex. E (Williams Dep.) at 248:13-23, 251:11-16. Williams also had an opportunity to speak on her own behalf, and made a “short statement, ” although she was not limited in how long she could speak. Id. at 251:17-23.

         Haralabopoulos states in his declaration that, after the hearing, he determined that Williams's employment should be terminated “based on the egregious conduct of both Ms. Williams and her family members while on board the aircraft on December 3, 2015, the resulting delay and inconvenience caused to United's customers, and the admissions of both Ms. Williams and her husband as set forth in the [December 2015] letters of apology.” Haralabopoulos Decl. ¶ 29. According to Haralabopoulos, those letters were relevant “because they admitted critical facts about the incident and offered no mitigating circumstances, ” and it was not relevant whether Williams or her husband started the fight. Id. ¶¶ 21, 29. Haralabopoulos sent Williams a letter dated April 19, 2019 informing her of his decision. Gutierrez Decl. Ex. G. Most of the letter discusses the December 2015 fight and related disturbance on the airplane, and Haralabopoulos presents Williams's conduct and that of her family members as the reason for his decision, although he also notes that Williams “provided medical information to [United] which appears to be false, ” and states that “[t]his would provide a separate and independent justification for your discharge.” Id. In a subsequent email to Williams's union representative, Haralabopoulos stated that although he disregarded as untimely the letters from Williams's husband and doctor, “a fair and reasonable consideration of these documents does not change [his] decision to terminate her employment, ” because “nothing in these documents changes the fact that Ms. Williams's conduct, and that of her family members, was grossly inappropriate.” Haralabopoulos Decl. Ex. 16.

         Williams's union declined to appeal the decision to the System Board of Adjustment. Khoury Decl. Ex. F.

         B. Williams's Complaint

         Williams's complaint asserts the following claims: (1) discrimination based on disability or medical condition, in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), 1st Am. Compl. (dkt. 26) ¶¶ 24-32; (2) discrimination based on age, in violation of FEHA, id. ¶¶ 33- 38; (3) failure to engage in the interactive process to determine whether a disability can be accommodated as required by FEHA, id. ¶¶ 39-45; (4) failure to accommodate a disability as required by FEHA, id. ¶¶ 46-52; (5) retaliation “for taking leave, for requesting that [United] respect and honor [Williams's] rights and requests for accommodation, as well as the nature of her medical conditions and disability, ” in violation of FEHA, id. ¶¶ 53-59; (6) failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation as required by FEHA, id. ¶¶ 60-65; (7) wrongful termination in violation of public policy, id. ¶¶ 66-73; and (8) “medical leave discrimination and retaliation in violation of the California Family Rights Act, ” id. ¶¶ 74-79 (capitalization altered).[6] The complaint as a whole suggests that United's stated reason for terminating her employment based on the December 2015 incident was pretext for terminating her because she had taken medical leave or because she was an older flight attendant earning the maximum salary for that position based on her seniority.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.