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Pryor v. United Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

April 16, 2014

RENEE PRYOR, Plaintiff,

Page 712

For Renee Pryor, Plaintiff: Joshua Harry Erlich, The Erlich Law Office PLLC, Arlington, VA.

For United Air Lines, Inc., Defendant: Elizabeth A. Lalik, LEAD ATTORNEY, Littler Mendelson PC (Tysons Blvd), McLean, VA; Joon Hwang, Littler Mendelson PC (McLean), McLean, VA; Katherine Anne Goetzl, Littler Mendelson PC, Washington, DC.


Page 713


Leonie M. Brinkema, United States District Judge.

This action arises from a number of racially charged incidents at Washington Dulles International Airport (" Dulles" ), where Renee Pryor (" Pryor" or " plaintiff" ) was based as a flight attendant for United Airlines, Inc. (" United" or " defendant" ). Plaintiff claims that her employer is liable for racial discrimination and harassment, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons that follow, defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.


Pryor, who is African-American, started working as a flight attendant for United in 1984, eventually transferring to Dulles from San Francisco International Airport sometime in the early 1990s. See Def.'s Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. (" Def.'s Mem." ), Ex. B, at 18, 23. Throughout her employment, United has maintained an official anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy. Until 2009, that policy was known as the Harassment & Discrimination (" H& D" ) Policy, which forbade all forms of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Def.'s Mem, Ex. N, at 107-09, 127-28. The H& D Policy was made available to employees, and Pryor herself was aware of its existence. Following United's merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, the H& D Policy was replaced by a new written policy known as the Working Together Guidelines (" Guidelines" ). Implementation of the Guidelines was a phased process, which was completed sometime in the first half of 2011. Id. at 109. Like the H& D Policy, the Guidelines forbade harassment and discrimination, and they also outlined in relatively general language the procedures for responding to employee complaints about such conduct.

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As far back as the mid-1990s, and as recently as 2008 or 2009, Pryor recalls receiving questions from unidentified colleagues about rumors circulating among United employees that African-American flight attendants based out of Dulles were moonlighting as prostitutes during layovers in Kuwait. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. B, at 12-13, 44-54. Although Pryor never lodged any complaints about the prostitution-related questions, supervisors at United caught wind of the general rumors and investigated them. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. D, at 11-13. Because of their third-hand nature and the lack of details or names attached, it was not possible to substantiate the rumors. Def.'s Mem., Ex. J, at 26-32. The General Manager who oversaw United's flights out of Kuwait had no knowledge of any prostitution activity, nor did supervisors at United's base in Kuwait report any prostitution-related issues or concerns with their employees. Id. In addition, the investigation revealed that the Kuwait hotel with which United had a contract at the time had similarly not experienced any issues or concerns regarding United employees prostituting. Id. There is no evidence in the record of these rumors continuing to circulate after 2009, and Pryor has not been asked about them since 2009 at the latest.

In January 2011, Pryor was reporting directly to Richard Reyes (" Reyes" ), one of approximately sixteen front-line supervisors responsible for managing Dulles-based flight attendants. Def.'s Mem., Ex. B, at 60; Pl.'s Mem. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (" Opp." ), Ex. B, at 42-43. Reyes reported to Kirstin Raubitschek, an Assistant Manager who played no role in the events leading to this litigation. Raubitschek reported to Denise Robinson-Palmer (" Robinson-Palmer" ), an Operational Manager at Dulles, and Robinson-Palmer in turn reported to Mary Kay Panos, the Director of Inflight Services for all Untied flights out of Dulles. The latter two are key players in this litigation.

On January 8, 2011, Pryor discovered in her United mailbox a paper note in the form of a mock " Federal Nigger Hunting License" declaring " open season on all niggers." A hand-drawn image of a person hanging from a pole or a tree also appeared on one corner of the note, as did the words " this is for you." [1] Def.'s Mem., Ex. B, at 55-57. Pryor immediately sought out Reyes and showed him the note. See Opp., Ex. A, at 60. In response, Reyes told Pryor he was " sorry" but that " there was not much United could do" because no security cameras covered her mailbox, id., which was located in an area at Dulles restricted to United employees. After Pryor continued to express her concerns, Reyes provided her with an incident form to complete. Id. at 61. Reyes also called Panos to inform her of the incident. Because Panos was out of the office (the incident occurred on a Saturday), she directed Reyes to slip an envelope containing the note under her door so she could address it first thing Monday morning. Def.'s Mem., Ex. D, at 78-79. Panos further directed Reyes to assure Pryor that United would investigate the incident, id., which he apparently did by telling Pryor the note would be sent to Corporate Security and the Base Manager, see Opp., Ex. A, at 61-67.[2]

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On January 10, 2011, Panos found the envelope in her office upon arriving at work. She then notified Robinson-Palmer of the incident and the two of them made copies of the note and discussed what to do about it. Panos called Pryor but was unable to reach her because she was on a five-day assignment to Moscow. Def.'s Mem., Ex. D, at 98. Panos also delegated a number of investigatory tasks to Robinson-Palmer, including following up with Pryor. Id. Accordingly, on January 11, 2011, Robinson-Palmer contacted Mike Folan (" Folan" ), a member of United's Corporate Security team, to alert him that a United employee had received in her Dulles mailbox a note containing racially motivated threats. Def.'s Mem., Ex. G, at 148. By the end of the week, Robinson-Palmer had also interviewed Pryor, assuring her that an investigation had been launched in cooperation with Corporate Security. Id. at 140-147. In addition, Panos contacted United's Legal Department and Human Resources Department in an effort " to keep everybody apprised . . . about the situation at hand." Def.'s Mem., Ex. D, at 94.

In the weeks that followed, the investigation failed to yield a suspect or even the approximate time at which the note was placed in Pryor's mailbox. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. N, at 130-33. " Brushing" the note for fingerprints was thought to be infeasible given that United did not have ready access to a database against which to compare any prints it found; moreover, the uncertain timeframe meant that any number of people could have handled the note before Pryor found it. Id. Acknowledging the lack of credible leads, Folan instructed Robinson-Palmer to make all of the front-line supervisors aware of the incident and to ask them to report any similar incidents. Def.'s Mem., Ex. G, at 212-17. Robinson-Palmer specifically asked Reyes " to keep an eye on Pryor's mailbox for anything further." Id. The investigation stagnated at the local level, and no efforts were made to contact Pryor again. On February 4, 2011, Folan and Robinson-Palmer discussed the status of the investigation, and Robinson-Palmer informed him that there was nothing new to report. Id. at 140-47. Folan reminded her to have the front-line supervisors continue monitoring the flight attendants' mailboxes. Id. With that, Folan closed the investigation. Apparently at no point did Panos, Robinson-Palmer, or Folan contact Pryor directly to inform her that the investigation had essentially ended.

On February 16, 2011, still in the dark, Pryor called United's Employee Service Center (" ESC" ) and another employee hotline to inquire as to the status of the investigation and to express her frustration at the lack of progress. See Opp., Ex. A, at 75-80. The United representative with whom she spoke opened a ticket and forwarded it to Alice Zauner (" Zauner" ), a Human Resources Manager based at United's headquarters in Chicago. Def.'s Mem., Ex. I, at 28-36. On February 17, 2011, after locating records of Pryor's initial complaint, Zauner placed the first in a series of calls to Folan for purposes of gathering information. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. N, at 48-49. Folan recounted the nature of the incident and the course of the local investigation, ultimately sharing his belief that it was an isolated incident. Id. Zauner placed similar fact-finding calls to Robinson-Palmer and Panos. On February 18, 2011, Zauner called Pryor to introduce herself, to explain that Pryor's

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complaint had been escalated to the Human Resources Department, and to hear out Pryor's dissatisfaction with the course of events. Id. at 57. Because Pryor was about to depart on assignment, Zauner scheduled a follow-up phone appointment for February 24, 2011, to further discuss details of the incident and the status of the investigation. Id. In the meantime, Zauner engaged in several conversations with Folan and Robinson-Palmer. Id. at 60.

Zauner failed to reach Pryor at the appointed time and left a number of messages that went unanswered. On February 27, 2011, having not yet spoken to Zauner, Pryor filed a report with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department (" MWAA PD" ). Opp., Ex. F, at 24. Pryor finally returned Zauner's calls on March 8, 2011, and the two had an " extremely difficult conversation" owing to Pryor's reluctance to share much information with Zauner. Def.'s Mem., Ex. N, at 60. Pryor eventually revealed that she had not been involved in any altercations with other United employees and had no idea who might be responsible for the note in her mailbox. Id. at 70, 77. When Zauner asked Pryor how she would like to see the incident resolved, Pryor initially deferred but upon reflection indicated that a general email to United employees might be sufficient. Id. at 77. At the conclusion of the call, Zauner explained that the investigation remained active and requested that Pryor contact her if any other relevant information came to light. Id. at 78. The next week Zauner ...

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