United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT.
C. SPERO CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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
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.
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, ” 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
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.
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
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.
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. 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
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.
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
- her conduct also violates our pass policies for conduct
while traveling, and resulted in the plane having to return
to the gate
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
union declined to appeal the decision to the System Board of
Adjustment. Khoury Decl. Ex. F.
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). 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.