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Williams v. United/Continental

United States District Court, D. Colorado

October 8, 2019




         This matter is before the Court pursuant to an Order (Dkt. #89) issued by Judge Lewis T. Babcock referring Defendant United Airlines, Inc.'s (“United”) Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. #86. The Court has reviewed the subject motion (Dkt. 86), Plaintiff Ellis Williams' Response (Dkt. #99), United's Reply, (Dkt. #103), and Mr. Williams' Sur-Reply (Dkt. #108). The Court heard oral argument on the subject motion on August 14, 2019. See Dkt. #107. The Court has taken judicial notice of the Court's file and considered the applicable Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and case law. Now, being fully informed and for the reasons discussed below, I recommend that United's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #86) be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is an employment discrimination case. Mr. Williams alleges that during his probationary pilot training with United, he experienced racial and national origin discrimination. He asserts claims for discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (“CADA”), and for hostile work environment. United now seeks summary judgment.

         Based on the briefing and evidence submitted, the parties agree as follows, unless noted. Where a dispute exists, the Court construes the facts most favorable to Mr. Williams, the nonmovant.

         Mr. Williams, who is black and of Antiguan descent, applied to be a pilot at United in 2015. Dkt. #86 at 3, ¶ 1.[1] He was offered a position of First Officer upon the successful completion of United's training program. Id. at 4, ¶ 4. Mr. Williams' training had several components, including nine days of basic indoctrination training, seven days of systems training, six days of procedures validation training, five days of maneuvers training, six days of line oriented flight training (“LOFT”), four “warm-up” sessions, and two qualification line oriented evaluations (a “QLOE” or “check-ride”). Id. at 4-5, ¶ 5. While United contends that the six days of LOFT is two more than most students need, id., as discussed below, Mr. Williams states that he did not need the extra training and, in any case, he did not actually fly during those additional sessions. Dkt. #99 at 17, ¶¶ 5-6.

         Mr. Williams' training was supervised by Rob Strickland, Senior Manager of Human Factors and Pilot Development, who is black and who never acted in a discriminatory manner towards Mr. Williams. Dkt. #86 at 5, ¶ 6. There were also two other black probationary pilots in Mr. Williams' new hire class, both of whom passed their training and remain employed by United. Id. at 6, ¶ 7.

         Mr. Williams' allegations of discrimination originate with the behavior of First Officer Chuck Taylor, who performed the procedures validation training. On January 31, 2016, First Officer Taylor brought Slurpee drinks to the first training session he had with Mr. Williams and his training partner, Captain Cliff Davis. Id. at 6, ¶ 8. Mr. Williams claims that he was given a watermelon-flavored Slurpee as “an intentional racial slur” because “the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon is a racist trope historically used for political purposes to denigrate black people[.]” Dkt #99 at 5, ¶ C. United disputes that First Officer Taylor bought or offered Mr. Williams a watermelon-flavored Slurpee, and instead asserts that he brought cherry, grape, and blue coconut-flavored frozen drinks[2] to the training. Dkt. #86 at 6, ¶ 8.

         During the procedures validation training, First Officer Taylor observed that Mr. Williams had pacing issues, would stop responding, and would sit there “not doing anything.” Id. at 6, ¶ 10. Mr. Williams claims that this criticism was unfair because Mr. Taylor instructed him to “just sit on your hands and watch.” Dkt. #99 at 5, ¶ D. Mr. Williams also claims that First Officer Taylor told him, “So far, I know of four of people who have failed and got fired, three of which were Hispanic with heavy accents, ” which Mr. Williams believes is “per se evidence of national origin discrimination, ” considering Mr. Williams speaks English with a Caribbean accent. Id. at 6-7, ¶ G. First Officer Taylor testified that he mentioned a previous student with a Spanish accent because he was trying to figure out if communication issues were causing Mr. Williams' pacing problems. Dkt. #103 at 14.

         First Officer Taylor then said that Captain Davis, who is white, “isn't going to let [Mr. Williams] make him fail his check ride, ” and further speculated to Mr. Strickland that Mr. Williams was dyslexic because he mis-typed one of waypoints into the computer system. Dkt. #99 at 7, ¶ H. First Officer Taylor, who is dyslexic himself, testified that this was another attempt to diagnose the possible cause of Mr. Williams' performance problems. Dkt. #103 at 21-22.

         Mr. Williams claims he called Mr. Strickland to complain about this treatment, but nothing was done about it. Dkt. #99 at 7, ¶ J. At First Officer Taylor's prompting, Mr. Strickland did give Mr. Williams some mental and physiological tips, after which his performance improved. Dkt. #86 at 6, ¶ 10. Mr. Strickland also reached out by email to First Officer Kevin Mauch, who was involved in Mr. Williams' maneuvers training, to assist Mr. Williams with his communication issues. Dkt. #99-11. Ultimately, Mr. Williams passed his procedures validation and maneuvers training. Dkt. #86 at 7, ¶ 13.

         Despite First Officer Taylor passing him, Mr. Williams asserts that First Officer gossiped about his performance with other instructors, which influenced Mr. Williams' remaining training experience. Dkt. #99 at 7, ¶ I. For example, on February 3, 2016, First Officer Brad Halloran told Mr. Williams, “Ellis, I don't find there's a problem with you, I think you're just like a gentle giant.” Id. at 5, ¶ F. In addition to finding this comment prejudicial and demeaning (Mr. Williams is 6'4” and 300 pounds), Mr. Williams claims that it shows that Mr. Taylor's alleged biases were being passed on to other United personnel. Id.

         Mr. Williams claims that his February 14-17, 2016 LOFT sessions with First Officer Todd Ziegler were similarly marred by First Officer Taylor spreading “the dirty low down” to other instructors.[3] Id. at 8-9, ¶¶ K-M. After Mr. Williams' fourth full flight simulator (“FFS”) ride (the first three went fine), First Officer Ziegler wrote that Mr. Williams “[d]oes not accurately prioritize tasks” and “[d]oes not speak up with questions or concerns as often as he should.” Dkt. #86 at 8 ¶ 15. Mr. Williams claims these criticisms were “foolish” and “preposterous, ” as well as discriminatory because his white training partner, Captain Davis, was not subjected to comparable reproaches. Dkt. #99 at 8, ¶ K. First Officer Zeigler scheduled Mr. Williams for two extra training sessions which Mr. Williams contends were not needed. Id. at 9, ¶ M.

         After the LOFT sessions with First Officer Zeigler, Mr. Williams and Captain Davis were placed on separate crews. Id. at 9-10, ¶ N. Mr. Williams alleges that this was discriminatory because, per United's protocols, training partners were generally kept together, and without Mr. Davis, Mr. Williams “no longer had a comparator” to evaluate him against. Id. He also claims that his eventual pairing with an instructor, “as opposed to an actual pilot, ” harmed Mr. Williams' training because “there's no penalty” if an instructor performs poorly. Id. However, United claims that First Officer Ziegler recommended that First Officer Davis proceed to his check ride because he was ready for the examination and “there was no reason to keep him behind to stay with Mr. Williams for his additional training.” Dkt. #99 at 18, ¶ 46. United further points out that its Advanced Qualification Program (“AQP”) provides that while “[[f]light crewmember substitution is highly discouraged since it distracts from realism and may inhibit good training and/or evaluations, ” it does not prohibit such substitutions when “necessary.” See Dkt. No. 99-5 at 2-3. The AQP also allows instructors to serve as substitute crewmembers. Id.

         Performance issues arose during Mr. Williams' additional LOFT rides. First Officer Greg Schuster noted in the Additional Training Worksheet that Mr. Williams' “major trouble point for today was not flying in the [flight director] while hand-flying Dkt. #86 at 8 ¶ 16. However, Mr. Williams points out that he passed this training exercise. Dkt. #99 at 10, ¶ O. Then, First Officer Dave Prewitt observed that Mr. Williams was “below standard in Ground operations to include Supplementary engine start procedures, Pushback/after start, re-routes and CRM [crew resources management]/TEM workload management.” Dkt. #86 at 8 ¶ 17. Mr. Williams concedes that this report was made but responds that these “warm-up” sessions are normally not subject to evaluation and documentation. Dkt. #99 at 18.

         As a result of Mr. Williams' alleged deficiencies, Mr. Strickland arranged for a probationary review panel to create a remediation strategy and plan. Dkt. #86 at 9, ¶ 19. Mr. Williams was not informed of the creation of this or any of the subsequent panels, and no one on the panel had direct knowledge of what happened during the FFS rides; instead, they relied on training logs and a briefing by Mr. Strickland. Dkt. #99 at 10, ¶ P. The panel determined that additional training was necessary, but Mr. Williams states he was not allowed to fly during the three added sessions. Id. at 11, ¶ Q. Instead, he programmed the computer and was timed “loading the box, ” i.e., coordinating the flight plan. Dkt. #86 at 10 ¶ 23.

         In any event, on March 7, 2016, First Officer Steve Renfro, who evaluated Mr. Williams' maneuvers training, recommended Mr. Williams for his check ride, which is the final stage of pilot training. Dkt. #86 at 10, ¶ 24. Check rides are Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) examinations, meaning that the FAA, not United, establishes the relevant criteria, and each pilot must pass the exam to receive the necessary licenses, certifications, and endorsements. Id., ¶ 25. While the evaluators are United employees, they are also designated representatives of the FAA and conduct the examinations on behalf of the FAA. Dkt. #86-2 at 6.

         On March 8, 2016, Mr. Williams attempted his first check ride. Id. at 11, ¶ 27. The evaluator was Captain Dave Wood, a United employee since 1988, and First Officer Pete Catalano served as the captain (“captain seat-fill”). Id. Captain Wood did not pass Mr. Williams. Id., ¶ 28. He noted several problems, including, “Ground ops was patchy, ” “missed bleeds switches during pneumatic start, ” “turned off APU gen . . . and turned on max autobrakes, ” “did not advocate for himself” while taxiing out, and reacted inappropriately to a traffic collision avoidance system (“TCAS”) event. Dkt. #86-27 at 2. Mr. Williams disputes he had any of these difficulties and claims that he “numerically passed this check ride based on AQP Difficulty Equivalency.” Dkt. #99 at 20. Mr. Williams also points out that the check ride was not recorded and Captain Wood's score sheet was “somehow” lost. Id. at 12, ¶ R.

         After a final review panel convened on March 10, 2016 to decide Mr. Williams's future with United, Mr. Williams was given another opportunity to complete the training. Dkt. #86 at 12, ¶ 30. He had two additional warm-up sessions, the last with First Officer Renfro, who then recommended a second check ride. The evaluator this time was Captain Mark Rosenhahn, a United employee since July 1989, with First Officer Renfro serving as the captain seat-fill. Dkt. #86 at 10, ¶¶ 22-24.

         Mr. Williams arguably fared worse on his second check ride. In his Additional Training Report, Captain Rosenhahn noted, among other things, that Mr. Williams:

• Had difficulties locating and completing the appropriate checklist ...

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