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Dooley v. Jetblue Airways Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

August 28, 2017

SHARI DOOLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
JETBLUE AIRWAYS CORPORATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JESSE M. FURMAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Shari Dooley brings this employment discrimination suit against her former employer, Defendant JetBlue Airways Corporation (“JetBlue”). By Opinion and Order entered on April 1, 2015, the Court dismissed all of Dooley's claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Dooley v. JetBlue Airways Corp., No. 14-CV-4432 (JMF), 2015 WL 1514955 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 1, 2015). (Docket No. 17). On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the Court's decision in all but one respect: In light of an intervening change in the law, the Circuit concluded that Dooley had adequately alleged a claim of discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and thus vacated and remanded as to that one claim. See Dooley v. JetBlue Airways Corp., 636 Fed. App'x 16 (2d Cir. 2015) (summary order). JetBlue now moves, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for summary judgment on the claim. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts, taken from the First Amended Complaint and admissible materials submitted by the parties in connection with JetBlue's motion, are either undisputed or described in the light most favorable to Dooley as the non-moving party. See, e.g., Costello v. City of Burlington, 632 F.3d 41, 45 (2d Cir. 2011).

         Dooley began working as an Inflight Crewmember (that is, a flight attendant) for JetBlue on or about June 21, 2006. (Docket No. 57 (“Olsen Aff.”), Ex. 57 (“Progressive Guidance Report”), at ¶ 000153). Approximately seven years later, on May 29, 2013, Dooley was injured while on the job when her hand was caught between a service cart and a galley counter. (Docket No. 55 (“Pl. 56.1 Resp.”) ¶ 15). After taking a medical leave to recover (Olsen Aff., Ex. 32), Dooley's physician cleared her to work full-time with restrictions on July 22, 2013. (Olsen Aff., Ex. 30). Two days later, pursuant to its policies for employees who have sustained an on-the-job injury, JetBlue offered Dooley a “Light Duty/Transitional Duty” position as a “Greeter” at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Id.; Docket No. 51 (“Lepore Aff.”), Ex. B (“Crewmember Blue Book”), at ¶ 000481-82). Dooley accepted that position and returned to work on July 29, 2013. (Olsen Aff., Ex. 31). On July 30, 2013, however, Dooley's transitional duty supervisor requested that she be removed from her position for “sitting next to kiosks” while on duty. (Olsen Aff., Ex. 36). That same day, Dooley's supervisor called to tell her she did not need to report for her light duty position the following day. (Olsen Aff., Ex. 52).

         More significantly, on August 2, 2013, JetBlue suspended Dooley without pay, citing her “dependability” record. (Olsen Aff., Ex. 53; Progressive Guidance Report, JB000153-54). In particular, JetBlue maintained that - even before her injury and medical leave - Dooley had accumulated six “unavailable for assignment” (“UNA”) “dependability occurrences.” (Progressive Guidance Report, JB000153). Under JetBlue's policies, an Inflight Crewmember who accrues six UNAs - defined as occasions “when an Inflight Crewmember is unavailable for an assignment as a result of an unusual circumstance, ” such as “a flat tire, death of relatives not covered by JetBlue's bereavement policy or a commuting issue” - within a rolling twelvemonth period is eligible for employment review and termination. (Lepore Aff., Ex. E (“Inflight Supplement”), at ¶ 000555-60). Dooley contended that at least two of her absences - one, due to a car accident, and another, due to her responsibilities as the executor of her mother's estate - should not have been coded as UNAs, but JetBlue ultimately rejected those contentions and terminated Dooley on September 12, 2013. (Lepore Aff., Ex. R, JB000182-83; Olsen Aff., Ex. 86). Dooley appealed her termination internally, but it was upheld. (Olsen Aff., Ex. 80).

         Thereafter, Dooley filed this lawsuit, alleging discrimination and retaliation claims under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as well as failure-to-accommodate and discrimination claims under the ADA. (Docket No. 10). As noted, on April 1, 2015, the Court dismissed all of Dooley's claims. See 2015 WL 1514955, at *1. On appeal, the Court of Appeals largely affirmed, but it vacated the Court's dismissal of Dooley's ADA discrimination claim and remanded for further proceedings. See Dooley, 636 Fed. App'x at 18. To the extent relevant here, the Circuit noted that, several months after this Court's dismissal, it had held that to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff alleging employment discrimination “‘need only give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.'” Id. at 21, 22 n.1 (quoting Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 84 (2d Cir. 2015)). The Circuit concluded that Dooley had done so, citing her allegation that JetBlue had deviated from its multi-step “progressive discipline policy regarding dependability” by proceeding directly to her termination. Id. at 21. “When coupled with the closeness in time between the injury that caused her alleged disability and JetBlue's initiation of the process that ultimately resulted in her firing, ” the Circuit continued, “these allegations give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Notably, the Circuit observed that this Court's dismissal of Dooley's ADA discrimination claim “under the preexisting law of this Circuit may very well have been appropriate.” Id. at 22 n.1.

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Discrimination claims under the ADA are analyzed using the well-established burden-shifting scheme established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green , 411 U.S. 792, 802-04 (1973). See Davis v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Educ., 804 F.3d 231, 235 (2d Cir. 2015). Under that scheme, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that (1) her employer is subject to the ADA; (2) she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA (or perceived to be so by her employer); (3) she was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; (4) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (5) the adverse employment action “took place under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” Id. If the plaintiff succeeds in establishing a prima facie case, the burden of production then shifts to the defendant, which must articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. See Id. If the defendant does so, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff, who must prove that the adverse employment action was motivated at least in part by impermissible discrimination. See id. (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000)).

         As a general matter, summary judgment is appropriate where the admissible evidence and the pleadings demonstrate “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 also Johnson v. Killian, 680 F.3d 234, 236 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam). A dispute over an issue of material fact qualifies as genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a judgment for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248; accord Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). “In moving for summary judgment against a party who will bear the ultimate burden of proof at trial, the movant's burden will be satisfied if he can point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.” Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Found., 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23). Critically, however, all evidence must be viewed “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, ” Overton v. N.Y. State Div. of Military & Naval Affairs, 373 F.3d 83, 89 (2d Cir. 2004), and the court must “resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible factual inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought, ” Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 83 (2d Cir. 2004).

         Notably, the Second Circuit has cautioned that courts should be “especially chary in handing out summary judgment in discrimination cases, ” as the intent of the employer is often disputed. Jamilik v. Yale Univ., 362 Fed.Appx. 148, 149 (2d Cir. 2009) (summary order) (internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, it is “beyond cavil that summary judgment may be appropriate even in the fact-intensive context of discrimination cases.” Abdu-Brisson v. Delta Air Lines. Inc., 239 F.3d 456, 466 (2d Cir. 2001). Indeed, just as in the non-discrimination context, “an employment discrimination plaintiff faced with a properly supported summary judgment motion must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. She must come forth with evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find in her favor.” Brown v. Henderson, 257 F.3d 246, 252 (2d Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). That is, “[a] plaintiff must produce not simply some evidence, but sufficient evidence to support a rational finding that the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons proffered by the [defendant] were false, and that more likely than not [discrimination] was the real reason for the [employment action].” Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 224 F.3d 33, 42 (2d Cir. 2000) (alterations in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         Applying the foregoing standards, Dooley's sole remaining claim fails for three reasons. First, she fails to establish a prima facie case of discrimination because she cannot demonstrate that she was “otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.” Davis, 804 F.3d at 235. Significantly, there is no dispute that one of the essential functions of the Inflight Crewmember job at JetBlue is an ability to “lift[] carry-on bags into overhead bins.” (Docket No. 50 (“Def. 56.1”) ¶ 20). JetBlue's job description provides, as a “minimum qualification[]” for the position, that an Inflight Crewmember must be able to “lift fifty (50) pounds from floor to above the shoulders.” (Olsen Aff., Ex. 2, at 1-2; see Id. (noting that Inflight Crewmembers are required to engage in “[h]eavy lifting, pushing or pulling of objects up to 100 pounds occasionally and/or up to 50 pounds frequently”)). And Dooley herself admitted that being a flight attendant requires lifting over ten pounds. (Lepore Aff., Ex. C (“Dooley Dep.”), at 47). It is also undisputed that, as a result of her injury, Dooley was unable to perform that essential function. Indeed, Dooley admitted in her deposition that she “still” could not “reach completely above [her] head” or carry anything “over 10 pounds, with [her] right hand.” (Id.). Based on her own admissions, therefore, Dooley cannot establish that she is “otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job” of Inflight Crewmember. See, e.g., Micari v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 43 F.Supp.2d 275, 281 (E.D.N.Y.) (granting summary judgment on an ADA discrimination claim on the ground that the plaintiff, “by his own admissions, . . . could not perform the essential functions” of his job “and, as such, he was not ‘otherwise qualified' under the ADA”), aff'd, 205 F.3d 1323 (2d Cir. 1999).[1]

         Notably, Dooley herself does not dispute that proposition. (See Docket No. 56 (“Pl. Mem.”), at 8 (conceding that Dooley “was disabled from” her job as an Inflight Crewmember “and could not return to it”)). Instead, she contends that “the job” for purposes of the analysis is not the Inflight Crewmember position that she had held before injury, but the Greeter position that she held just before her termination. (Pl. Mem. 8-9). That argument, however, is contradicted by Dooley's Complaint, which alleges that Dooley was an Inflight Crewmember and compares her treatment to the treatment of other Inflight Crewmembers. (Docket No. 10, ¶¶ 11, 27-28). More importantly, it is contradicted by the evidence. JetBlue's employee manual, for example, provides that “Light Duty/Transitional Duty positions are intended to be temporary, with a maximum duration of 90 days, ” after which an Inflight Crewmember must either “return to Full Duty status” or “be placed out on Workers' Compensation.” (Crewmember Blue Book, JB000481-82). And Dooley herself testified that her role as a Greeter was only “transitional” for the purposes of returning to her “regular ...


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