Stansberry v. Air Wis. Airlines Corp..

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
Citation43 NDLR P 147,24 A.D. Cases 1544,651 F.3d 482
Docket NumberNo. 09–2499.,09–2499.
PartiesEugene STANSBERRY; Marcia R. Meoli, Bankruptcy Trustee of the Estate of Eugene and Deborah Stansberry, Plaintiffs–Appellants,v.AIR WISCONSIN AIRLINES CORPORATION, Defendant–Appellee.
Decision Date06 July 2011

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

ARGUED: William F. Piper, II, William F. Piper, PLC, Portage, Michigan, for Appellants. Chad A. Shultz, Ford & Harrison LLP, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: William F. Piper, II, William F. Piper, PLC, Portage, Michigan, for Appellants. Chad A. Shultz, Raanon Gal, Ford & Harrison LLP, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellee.Before: MARTIN, NORRIS, and SILER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

BOYCE F. MARTIN, JR., Circuit Judge.

After being fired, Eugene Stansberry sued his former employer, Air Wisconsin Airlines, alleging “association discrimination” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. While Stansberry is not disabled, his wife suffers from Polyarteritis Nodosa, a rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder. Stansberry asserts that Air Wisconsin terminated him because of unfounded fears that he would be distracted at work on account of his wife's disability. The district court, however, granted summary judgment in favor of Air Wisconsin concluding that Stansberry did not establish a prima facie case of discrimination and, alternatively, that Air Wisconsin had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for discharging him. We AFFIRM the grant of summary judgment.

I.

Stansberry managed Air Wisconsin's operations at Kalamazoo Airport from 1999 until he was fired on July 26, 2007. Air Wisconsin is a regional passenger airline that operates flights for larger carriers including U.S. Airways Express, Northwest Airlines, and United Express.

In the mid–1990s Stansberry's wife developed Polyarteritis Nodosa, a very rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder. The disease caused her tumors, lesions, swelling, a stroke, severe pain, dizziness, numbness and weakness, and vision problems. Air Wisconsin's group medical plan covered both Stansberry and his wife before he was terminated. Initially, the plan covered an expensive course of prescription Remicade infusions for Stansberry's wife. The Remicade treatments cost the insurer about $4,000 every six weeks, but dramatically improved her condition.

Stansberry's wife's condition began to worsen in March 2007 and her physicians recommended that she resume Remicade treatments. However, Remicade was not technically approved for fighting her disorder, and Air Wisconsin's health plan administrator notified Stansberry in May that it would no longer cover the Remicade treatments. Stansberry spoke to various people at Air Wisconsin and its plan administrator to no avail. On July 10 the plan administrator denied Stansberry's appeal of the initial decision that the Remicade treatments were not covered. But, because of the confusion and delay, the administrator agreed to cover the Remicade treatments through July.

Around this time Air Wisconsin dramatically increased its operations in Kalamazoo, growing from eleven employees to twenty-five. Stansberry did not train the new employees but, as Air Wisconsin's highest ranking manager in Kalamazoo, he was responsible for ensuring that they properly carried out their jobs. Unfortunately, the new hires proved problematic. Between February and May six different employees received a total of nine security violation letters from the Kalamazoo airport director. Stansberry did not notify Air Wisconsin's corporate headquarters about the violations, and in June the Transportation Security Administration sent a letter of investigation to Air Wisconsin's headquarters. Marvin Mulder, Air Wisconsin's regional manager and Stansberry's supervisor, eventually received this notice and was particularly troubled that Stansberry had not informed him of the violations earlier.

When asked why he had not reported the violations to headquarters, Stansberry stated that he was unaware he needed to do so. Mulder explained that Air Wisconsin's policy had always been that security violations must be reported to the corporate offices. Stansberry disagreed and suggested that Air Wisconsin send a memorandum to station managers clarifying this policy in order to ensure proper reporting in the future. Shortly thereafter Air Wisconsin did circulate a memorandum reminding employees of the policy.

Even prior to this incident, Mulder and Stansberry had a strained relationship. Beginning in March 2007 Stansberry sent several emails to Mulder expressing his displeasure with Mulder's management style and stating that he was thinking about quitting. In June, Stansberry sent Mulder a particularly candid e-mail in which he wrote, “I just can't do this job knowing that I am failing at my job. I have too much pride.”

Mulder reviewed the security violations with Air Wisconsin's vice president of customer relations and the two notified the Transportation Security Administration that they would take “severe disciplinary action” against Stansberry.

On July 26 Mulder went to Kalamazoo to meet with Stansberry. The parties dispute what was said during the meeting, but it ended with Mulder firing Stansberry. Air Wisconsin asserts that it terminated Stansberry for poor performance based on his failure to stay within budget, failure to report security violations, and improper supervision of employees, which led to the security violations in the first place. Although Mulder stated that he had not, prior to this meeting, decided whether to fire Stansberry, he had brought with him a prepared termination letter. Mulder gave Stansberry this letter, which referenced only the security violations as the grounds for his termination.

Stansberry filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights on August 22. Stansberry eventually withdrew his claim with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and received a right to sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

After Stansberry received his right to sue letter, but before he filed a lawsuit against Air Wisconsin, he and his wife filed a bankruptcy petition under Chapter 7. Stansberry did not disclose that he had received a right to sue letter or that he intended to file a lawsuit against Air Wisconsin. Stansberry asserts that he told Marcia Meoli, the trustee in bankruptcy, that he had been fired and was considering filing a lawsuit against Air Wisconsin but that Meoli did not believe he had much of a case. After Stansberry filed this lawsuit, in October 2008, Air Wisconsin contacted Meoli to inform her of Stansberry's claim. Meoli successfully reopened the bankruptcy proceedings and joined the lawsuit.

In an oral decision issued after argument on Air Wisconsin's summary judgment motion, the district court held that Stansberry is not judicially estopped from pursuing the claim based on his failure to disclose it to the bankruptcy court. However, the district court granted summary judgment for Air Wisconsin on Stansberry's associational discrimination claim, finding that Stansberry did not establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Alternatively, the district court also found that Stansberry's poor performance was a legitimate reason for his termination and he had not shown that it was pretextual. Additionally, the district court granted summary judgment for Air Wisconsin on Stansberry's retaliation claim. Stansberry appeals the district court's decision granting Air Wisconsin summary judgment on his associational discrimination claim.

II.

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Bentkowski v. Scene Magazine, 637 F.3d 689, 693 (6th Cir.2011). Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “The moving party has the initial burden of proving that no genuine issue of material fact exists,” and the court must draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Vaughn v. Lawrenceburg Power Sys., 269 F.3d 703, 710 (6th Cir.2001). When a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported and the nonmoving party fails to respond with a showing sufficient to establish an essential element of its case, summary judgment is appropriate. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

Stansberry claims that Air Wisconsin discharged him because of his wife's disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. His claim arises under section 12112(b)(4) of the Act, which prohibits “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4) (2006). For the purpose of resolving this appeal we assume that Stansberry's wife is a qualified individual with a disability as defined by the Act.

Stansberry's claim arises under an infrequently litigated section of the Act, which this Court has never addressed in a published opinion. The legislative history accompanying this section, H.R.Rep. No. 101–485, pt. 2, at 61–62 (1990), reprinted in 1990 U.S.C.C.A.N. 303, 343–44, explains the type of conduct that is prohibited.

[A]ssume, for example that an applicant applies for a job and discloses to the employer that his or her spouse has a disability. The employer believes the applicant is qualified for the job. The employer, however, assuming without foundation that the applicant will have to miss work or frequently leave work early or both, in order to care for his or her spouse, declines to hire the individual for such...

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