Landon v. Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Decision Date18 December 1995
Docket NumberNo. 95-1529,95-1529
Citation72 F.3d 620
Parties67 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 43,798 Robert LANDON, Appellant, v. NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Lawrence P. Schaefer, Minneapolis, Minnesota, argued (Paul C. Sprenger, James A. Jones and Jane Lang, on the brief), for appellant.

Jean F. Holloway, Minneapolis, Minnesota, argued (Bianca Zick, on the brief), for appellee.

Before FAGG, HEANEY, and HANSEN, Circuit Judges.

HEANEY, Circuit Judge.

Robert Landon, a former employee for Northwest Airlines, was drug tested and subsequently terminated when his specimen tested positive for marijuana metabolites. Landon brought suit against his former employer in federal court under various federal and state causes of action. The district court ordered summary judgment for Northwest Airlines on all claims.

With respect to Landon's claims that Northwest's actions violated federal and state prohibitions on racial discrimination and the California constitutional right of privacy, we find that there is sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact: the motivations for requiring Robert Landon to take a drug test on the night of March 2, 1992. Based on the evidence presented, a reasonable juror could find that Northwest's proffered business reason for requiring Landon to take the drug test was pretextual. As a result, a jury must determine whether the proffered reason was a pretext for racial discrimination. Therefore, summary judgment was inappropriate with respect to Landon's claims of racial discrimination and invasion of privacy. We reverse the district court's dismissal of those two claims and remand them for trial.

BACKGROUND

Appellant, Robert Landon, is an African-American male hired by appellee, Northwest Airlines (NWA), as an Equipment Services Employee (ESE) in September 1989. As an ESE, Landon loaded, unloaded, and cleaned NWA aircraft. Landon was employed pursuant to a bargaining agreement between NWA and the International Association of Machinists.

On March 2, 1992, Landon was unloading a NWA airplane using a conveyer-belt machine. During the unloading, the steering wheel of the belt loader caught on the aircraft cargo-bay door and broke the door handle. Landon reported the incident to his immediate supervisor, Robin Aponte. Aponte inspected the damage and told Landon to proceed to his next assignment. Aponte asserts that during a fifteen-minute interview of Landon, he noticed that Landon had bloodshot eyes, slurred his speech, and had difficulty understanding Aponte's questions.

Aponte reported the incident to his supervisors, Stephen Brice and Clifford Van Leuven. Brice and Van Leuven then located Landon. Van Leuven informed Landon that, because the accident was his third of the year, he could expect to have some time off and that he would be required to take a drug and alcohol test. Landon claims that Brice informed him that regulations required administration of the test following an accident. Landon's position with NWA was "non-safety sensitive." As a non-safety sensitive employee, the only legitimate basis for testing Landon was for reasonable suspicion of alcohol or drug use.

Brice and Van Leuven then accompanied Landon to the San Francisco International Airport Medical Center, a facility independent from NWA, where Landon was required to execute a written consent to the drug test. At this time, Nurse Thomas Griglock completed a medical center form that indicated that the basis for the test was "post-accident." 1 ] Landon gave Griglock a urine sample, which was sealed and sent to an independent testing agency in Illinois. After providing the urine sample, Landon returned to the Ramp Office where Van Leuven suspended him for the rest of his shift. The following day, Van Leuven instructed Landon to report for his regular work schedule.

Landon's specimen tested positive for marijuana metabolites. On March 13, 1994, Brice and Van Leuven informed Landon by notice of discharge that his employment was terminated as a consequence of the NWA alcohol and drug policy violation.

Landon alleges that he was tested and subsequently fired for racially-motivated purposes. He further alleges that he was not reinstated for the same reasons and in retaliation for a Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint that he had lodged against NWA. Landon brings suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1981; Title VII, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000(e) et seq.; the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Cal. Gov't Code, Art. I, Sec. 12940 et seq.; the California constitutional right of privacy; the San Francisco City and County ordinance-based right of privacy; and California public policy. Landon further claims that statements made by his supervisor, Van Leuven, regarding his suspicions were defamatory.

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A material fact dispute is genuine if the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. We review the granting of summary judgment de novo.

Although summary judgment should be used sparingly in the context of employment discrimination cases, Crawford v. Runyon, 37 F.3d 1338, 1341 (8th Cir.1994), the plaintiff's evidence must go beyond the establishment of a prima facie case to support a reasonable inference regarding the alleged illicit reason for the defendant's action. Reich v. Hoy Shoe Co., 32 F.3d 361, 365 (8th Cir.1994).

A. The Discrimination Claims 2

In a racial discrimination suit, the plaintiff must first make a prima facie case that i) he is a member of a protected class, ii) he is qualified for the position, iii) adverse action was taken against him, and iv) there is some evidence that would allow the inference of improper motivation. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 1824, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). The prima facie burden is not so onerous as, nor should it be conflated with, the ultimate issue of racially-motivated action. See Davenport v. Riverview Gardens Sch. Dist., 30 F.3d 940, 944 (8th Cir.1994). We find that Landon sufficiently established a prima facie case. Landon i) is African American, ii) was a qualified ESE, and iii) was fired by NWA. With respect to the fourth prong, Landon has presented evidence that could support his allegations that Van Leuven is a racist and that, as will be discussed, NWA's proffered business reason was pretextual. While this evidence would not require a reasonable juror to return a verdict for the appellant, it is sufficient to meet the fourth prong's minimal requirements of some evidence allowing for an inference of improper motivation.

Once the plaintiff makes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate business reason for its action. McDonnell, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. at 1824. In this case, NWA maintains that it tested Landon based on the reasonable suspicions of its supervisors that Landon was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There is no dispute that NWA's reasonable suspicion policy constitutes a legitimate business reason. Having articulated a legitimate business purpose, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to meet a more difficult standard: demonstrating that the defendant's articulated reason for its action was i) a pretext ii) for unlawful discrimination. See St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, --- U.S. ----, ---- - ----, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 2748-49, 125 L.Ed.2d 407, 418 (1993).

As proof that the proffered reason for requiring the appellant to submit to drug testing was pretextual, the appellant points to the following evidence: i) statements made by Landon's supervisors on the night of the accident that he was being tested as a consequence of the accident; ii) forms, filed contemporaneously with the drug test, that fail to indicate the supervisors' suspicions; iii) evidence that the supervisors did not follow procedures consistent with reasonable suspicion (e.g., although NWA policy prohibits employees, who have been tested for reasonable suspicion, from driving motorized vehicles until the results of their test are returned, Landon's supervisors permitted Landon to drive home following the drug test and required him to return to work the following day); iv) a medical affidavit asserting that the levels of marijuana metabolites found by the drug test were not such that the appellant's behavior would have been demonstrably affected; and v) affidavits of appellant's friends and relatives stating that Landon's behavior was normal on the night of the accident.

In response, NWA offers affidavits of the three supervisors. These affidavits assert that their suspicions were aroused by the appellant's atypical behavior. The defendant admits to acting abnormally, but attributes his behavior to his unhappiness regarding the accident. Reply Brief at 6 n. 2. For the purposes of summary judgment, the proffered evidence must be taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.

Landon's evidence sketches a factual background by which objective reasonable suspicions could not be aroused. More importantly, the evidence of statements and conduct inconsistent with the supervisors' purported subjective suspicions could support an inference that the supervisors had no suspicions on the night of March 2, 1992. As such, the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable juror to reject NWA's proffered business reason.

For a jury to return a verdict in favor of the appellant, it would need to find that the reason provided for the drug test was not only a pretext, but that the actual motivation for the test was for racial discrimination. Hicks, --- U.S. at ---- - ----, 113 S.Ct. at 2748-50, 125 L.Ed.2d at 418-19. The Supreme Court in Hicks, however, stated that "rejection of the defendant's proffered reasons, will permit...

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