United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division
LIAM O'GRADY, District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on Defendant United Airlines, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 67. The motion has been fully briefed by the parties. On June 19, 2015, the Court heard oral argument and took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.
This case arises out of an employment relationship between Plaintiff Masoud Sharif and Defendant United Airlines, Inc. ("United"). In 1990, Sharif began working for United as a Reservation Representative and remained employed there for the next twenty-four years. In 2004, Sharif was promoted to the position of Service Director. Besides an incident in 2009, United had "consistently issued Sharif positive performance evaluations." Am. Compl. ¶ 34.
Due to being imprisoned and tortured by Iranian police during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Sharif suffers from anxiety. Around 2009, Sharif requested intermittent Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") leave as necessary to manage his anxiety. United approved his request, allowing him to take leave once a month for one to five days as necessary. To exercise this leave, United required Sharif to call and provide his dates of absence and FMLA case number.
In September 2013, United offered its employees the option to retire early or accept buyout packages. To be eligible for the "Early Out Program, " the employee had to have at least ten years with the company and work in certain positions. Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. ("Def.'s SJ Mot."), Ex. 20. Sharif declined to participate in the program. Some senior employees did accept the buyout package, and United replaced these employees with employees who were paid significantly less. Of these replacement employees at the Dulles airport where Sharif worked, 48% were under forty years old.
In March 2014, Sharif and his wife took a vacation to South Africa, which was approved by United. He was scheduled to return to work on March 30, 2014. As United employees, the Sharifs took advantage of standby airline tickets for the trip. However, because of an International Jazz Festival going on in Capetown and a strike at one of the major airlines, the Sharifs were unable to obtain standby or full fare tickets back to the United States. Realizing that he would miss his work shift, Sharif suffered an anxiety attack. He then called United to inform them he needed to take FMLA leave and would not report to work on the 30th.
On March 31, 2014, Suzanne Hasser, a Senior Coordinator in United's Dulles office, emailed several United employees, stating that Sharif "called out FMLA yesterday, Sunday. This was the only day he didn't have covered for his vacation trip out of the country.... He did the same thing last September, 2013." Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 10. Seemingly as a result of this email, on April 23, 2014, Sharif was called into a meeting by his Area Manager Jon Connor. United's Human Resources Manager Kenneth Martin and his union representative were also present, with stacks of documents in front of them. During the meeting, Martin questioned Sharif about his travel plans on March 30, 2014 and whether he had been scheduled to work on that date. This line of questioning caused Sharif to suffer a panic attack. Sharif Dep. 162:18-163:15. As a result, he incorrectly stated that he was not scheduled to work that day. Martin then asked why he called out FMLA leave that day if he was not scheduled to work. Sharif proceeded to explain that he had had a panic attack due to not being able to fly home in time for his shift because of the "unpredicted jazz festival, " which made it "impossible to get out of Capetown." Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 20. At some point, Martin had Sharif memorialize this explanation in a written statement. Id. At the conclusion of the meeting, Sharif was told he was being suspended while United conducted an investigation into his FMLA leave request. His building access card was then taken from him and he was escorted off the premises.
Three weeks later, on May 15, 2014, United sent Sharif a letter notifying him that it was terminating his employment "effective today" because it had concluded that he had violated its honesty policy and "fraudulently claimed an FMLA qualifying illness" to excuse his absence on March 30, 2014. Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 12. The letter also informed Sharif he would have a hearing scheduled for June 5, 2014. During that hearing, United told Sharif it would terminate him. It then offered him the option of retiring in lieu of termination. His union representative repeatedly recommended that he retire because the hearing officer's decision would not be favorable. On June 8, 2014, before Sharif had made a decision, United's Board Chairman sent him a letter congratulating him on his decision to retire. The next day, "facing no option but termination, Sharif accepted United's offer to retire in lieu of termination." Am. Compl. ¶ 119. He was later replaced by Ms. Terri Evans, who is about 19 months younger than him.
On November 19, 2014, Sharif filed a two count First Amended Complaint in this Court. In Count I, Sharif alleged that he was terminated in retaliation for requesting FMLA leave. In Count II, he alleged that United treated him in a disparate manner because of his age when it terminated him, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). Sharif has exhausted his administrative remedies, having previously filed a charge with the EEOC and been issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights. On November 25, 2014, United filed a motion to dismiss the ADEA claim for failure to state a claim, which the Court denied. Dkt. Nos. 18, 25. The parties have since engaged in discovery and United now moves for summary judgment.
II. Legal Standard
Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). As the Supreme Court has explained, "this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A dispute over an issue of material fact is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. Finally, in making a summary judgment determination, the court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986).
United has moved for summary judgment on both counts of the complaint. The resolution of the motion as to the FMLA claim turns on whether a reasonable juror could find for Sharif on the following issues: (1) whether United took adverse action against him; (2) whether a causal connection existed between his request of FMLA leave and the adverse action; (3) whether United's non-retaliatory reason for terminating Sharif was pretextual-that is, whether the real reason was retaliation for exercising his FMLA rights; and (4) whether United's May 15, 2014 letter to Sharif stating that it was terminating him because he "fraudulently claimed an FMLA qualifying illness" constitutes direct evidence of discrimination. With respect to the ADEA claim, the motion turns on: (1) whether United took adverse action against Sharif; and (2) whether United's non-retaliatory reason for terminating Sharif was pretextual-in other words, whether the real reason was discriminatory animus based on his age. The Court will address each of these issues in turn.
A. FMLA Retaliation
To prevail on his FMLA retaliation claim, Sharif must either point to direct evidence of discrimination or proceed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Laing v. Fed. Exp. Corp., 703 F.3d 713, 717 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). Under the latter method, Sharif must make a prima facie showing that: (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) United took adverse action against him; and (3) a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the adverse action. Yashenko v. Harrah's NC ...