Parker v. United Airlines, Inc.
No. 21-4093. 9/26/2022. D.Utah. Judge Bacharach. Family and Medical Leave Act—Retaliation—Pretext—Causal Chain—Independent Investigation.
September 26, 2022
Parker was employed by United Airlines, Inc. (United) to answer phone calls and book flight reservations. She took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because she had a vision disorder and her father had cancer. Several months after approving the leave, Parker’s supervisor suspected that she was engaging in call avoidance—avoiding new calls by putting customers on hold, telling them she would get additional information, and chatting with coworkers while the customers waited. After a meeting between Parker, her supervisor, and a union representative, United suspended Parker while investigating her performance. During this investigation, the supervisor reviewed more of Parker’s customer phone calls and recommended that United fire her. United’s policies prohibited Parker’s supervisor from firing her, and United selected a manager to conduct another meeting. Following this meeting, the manager agreed with the supervisor’s recommendation. Parker appealed the firing by filing a grievance. Another senior manager conducted this appeal and determined that United hadn’t acted improperly in firing Parker. Parker sued, and the district court granted summary judgment to United based on Parker’s failure to show pretext.
On appeal, Parker argued that her supervisor retaliated against her for using FMLA leave and that the district court erred in relying on the manager’s independence and disregarding the supervisor’s retaliatory motive. Parker relied on the “cat’s paw” theory, which imputes a supervisor’s motive to an employer if the motive influenced the employer’s decision. Retaliation requires a causal link between an employee’s use of FMLA leave and the firing, but the link is broken when an independent decisionmaker conducts an investigation and decides to fire the employee. Accordingly, Parker had to show that United’s legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action—call avoidance—was pretextual through evidence that a discriminatory reason had more likely motivated United or that its proffered explanation was not credible. Here, Parker’s supervisor recommended her firing, and two independent decisionmakers considered the recommendation. Therefore, United broke the causal chain by directing other managers to independently investigate and decide whether to adopt the supervisor’s recommendation, and Parker failed to show pretext.
Parker also moved to file certain documents under seal. United contended that eight exhibits contain proprietary information, and Parker did not rebut this contention, so United’s interests support the sealing of these exhibits.
The grant of summary judgment to United was affirmed. Parker’s motion for leave to file documents under seal was granted in part and denied in part.