Tenth Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment Ruling for United Airlines in FMLA Suit

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, hearing the appeal of an ex-United Airlines employee in an FMLA suit, has upheld the lower court’s summary judgment, ruling in favor of the employer. In its majority opinion, the appellate court ruled that the Utah district court correctly determined that a supervisor’s alleged bias against the former employee could not be attributed to United. As a result, the district court properly granted summary judgment on the former employee’s claim that United had fired her in retaliation for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The case is Parker v. United Airlines, case number 21-4093.

Ex-employee Jeannie Parker alleged that United was liable for bias by her supervisor under a so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability. Under this theory, a plaintiff must establish that the retaliatory motives of a supervisor influenced the party responsible for the termination of employment. Parker alleged that her supervisor’s retaliatory bias in recommending that she be fired for taking FMLA to treat a vision disorder and care for her ill father was imputable to United. The Tenth Circuit found that Parker failed to establish sufficient evidence supporting the cat’s paw theory of liability.

The court reasoned that United’s policy of using an independent decisionmaker to investigate and terminate employees insulated the company from allegations that the supervisor’s bias led to Parker’s termination. Retaliation requires a causal link between Parker taking FMLA leave and her termination. United broke that causal link by using an independent decisionmaker to determine whether to adopt the supervisor’s recommendation to fire Parker. 

United gave Parker another chance to contest her termination, which further insulated the company from the supervisor’s alleged bias. Under United’s policy, after the supervisor recommended that Parker be terminated, it selected a manager to meet with Parker, a union representative, and the supervisor to determine whether to terminate her. If Parker disagreed with the outcome of the meeting, she could further appeal her termination through a grievance processing before a different manager. 

Finally, the court rejected Parker’s argument that the reason for her termination – serious policy violations during customer service calls – was pretextual. 

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