Thursday, March 29, 2018

JetBlue Beats Ex-Flight Attendant's Disability Bias Suit

Law360 (March 28, 2018, 9:03 PM EDT) -- JetBlue won't have to face a former flight attendant's claim that she was fired because of her post-traumatic stress disorder, a Massachusetts federal judge ruled Wednesday, finding that the airline didn't enforce its attendance policy against her differently than it did with other similar employees.

U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns awarded JetBlue Airways Corp. summary judgment over claims by plaintiff Lauren Miceli that the company fired her in late 2015 based on animus toward the fact that she suffered from PTSD and had filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, rather than the excessive absenteeism claimed by the airline.

"Defendants contend, and the court agrees, that Miceli has not proffered evidence that would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that JetBlue terminated her 'because of' her disability," Judge Stearns said.

Miceli, who initially filed suit in July 2016, began working at JetBlue as a flight attendant in March 2006 based out of Boston's Logan Airport. An employee handbook she signed on her first day with the company specified that "attendance and punctuality is essential" to her job, according to court documents, which said JetBlue used a point system to track absences in which an employee could be subject to discipline after they accrued a certain number of points.

In early 2015, Miceli was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety that was induced by a work-related ear injury she suffered the prior year. JetBlue's leave administrator Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., acting on a recommendation from Miceli's doctor, approved her to take intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to accommodate any "flare-ups" or treatment of her disability.

Eventually, that accommodation allowed Miceli one five-day absence each month beginning June 2015. But between March and May 2015, Miceli was absent multiple times, some of which were credited as approved FMLA leave and others were not, court documents say.

That led to a meeting between Miceli and JetBlue officials in which the flight attendant stated her belief that some of the absences had been miscoded and should have been excused as FMLA leave.

Because of a hospital stay that summer, MetLife approved Miceli for disability leave for most of the second half of 2015. But one of the days she was hospitalized had been coded as an unexcused absence, which put Miceli over the point threshold by which termination was warranted under JetBlue's attendance policy. Shortly after she returned to work in November 2015, Miceli was suspended.

After not submitting a written statement responding to the suspension, she was fired in December 2015 — about a week after she had filed a charge with the MCAD, according to court documents.

Miceli had argued in her suit that JetBlue's reliance on her attendance record was pretextual since the company incorrectly assessed her points for absences that should have been excused as FMLA leave, including for the day that pushed her point total above the threshold for termination.

But Judge Stearns noted in his order that MetLife had approved intermittent FMLA for the dates and durations that were supported by documentation from Miceli's doctor, and that there was no evidence Miceli had submitted a request for a reasonable accommodation for her disability other than three leave requests that were approved.

Moreover, Judge Stearns said there was similarly no evidence that Miceli's complaint to the MCAD was "'a determinative factor,' or even a factor at all," in the company's decision to fire her.

"JetBlue consistently enforced its dependability policy before and after having notice of Miceli's MCAD complaint, and issued progressive [discipline] to Miceli only as justified by her attendance record," Judge Stearns said. "As noted above, Miceli also has no evidence that other similarly situated employees were treated more favorably. Without linkage there can be no causation, and without causation the retaliation claim fails as a matter of law."

Counsel for both parties and a representative for JetBlue were not immediately available for comment.

Miceli is represented by Christopher J. Trombetta of the Law Office of Christopher J. Trombetta.

JetBlue is represented by Samantha Abeysekera and Christopher Lepore of Akerman LLP and Erik Winton of Jackson Lewis PC.

The case is Lauren Miceli v. JetBlue Airways Corp. et al., case number 16-12032, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Original article can be found here ➤ https://www.law360.com

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