Starker v. Spirit Airlines

Decision Date03 September 2019
Docket Number17 Civ. 6812 (HBP)
PartiesOSCAR STARKER, Plaintiff, v. SPIRIT AIRLINES, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York

PITMAN, United States Magistrate Judge:

I. Introduction

By notice of motion dated October 31, 2018, defendants seek an Order pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 granting summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's First Amended Complaint (Notice of Motion, dated Oct. 31, 2018 (Docket Item ("D.I.") 31)). By notice of motion dated October 30, 2018, plaintiff seeks an Order pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 55 granting a default judgment against defendant Sherron Hines (Notice of Motion, dated Oct. 30, 2018 (D.I. 36)). All parties have consented to my exercising plenary jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiff's motion for a default judgment is denied. II. Background

A. Facts

This case arises out of plaintiff's alleged mistreatment by employees of defendant Spirit Airlines ("Spirit").

On July 21, 2017, plaintiff boarded an 8:29 p.m. flight operated by Spirit from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Statement of Material Facts Pursuant to Local Civil Rule 56.1, dated Oct. 31, 2018 (D.I. 33) ("Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat.") ¶¶ 7, 9, citing Deposition of Oscar Starker (D.I. 34-1) ("Pl. Dep.") at 59, 69-70, attached as Ex. A to Declaration of Timothy G. Hourican, dated Oct. 31, 2018 (D.I. 34) ("Hourican Decl.")). Plaintiff was assigned seat 25C in an exit row of the aircraft (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 10, citing Pl. Dep. at 73 and Deposition of Sherron Hines (D.I. 34-2) ("Hines Dep.") at 19, attached as Ex. B to Hourican Decl.).

Passengers seated in an exit row receive a special safety briefing from a flight attendant in addition to the standard safety briefing given to all passengers (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 11, citing Hines Dep. at 19-23, 48). Passengers in an exit row must give their "undivided attention" to this safety briefing, and if a passenger cannot or does not want to comply with the requirements of sitting in the exit row, he may move toa different seat in the aircraft (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 12-13, citing Hines Dep. at 22-23, 44-45, 60).

Spirit's Contract of Carriage provides that "[i]t is the customer's responsibility to notify Spirit of a unique seating need. In accordance with this Contract of Carriage, Spirit may refuse to transport individuals who are unable or unwilling to comply with Spirit's seating requirements." (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 41, citing Hines Dep. at 58 and Spirit Contract of Carriage, dated July 10, 2017 (D.I. 34-3) ("Contract of Carriage") ¶ 4.11.1, attached as Ex. C to Hourican Decl.). The Contract of Carriage further provides that "[a] customer shall not be permitted to board the aircraft or may be required to leave an aircraft if that customer . . . interferes or attempts to interfere with any member of the flight crew in the pursuit of his/her duties" (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 38, citing Hines Dep. 56-57 and Contract of Carriage ¶ 4.3.1.e.). Finally, the Contract of Carriage provides that "[i]f a customer is not permitted to board and/or required to leave an aircraft for safety and/or regulatory reasons under paragraph 4.3 and its sub sections, the customer will not be eligible for a refund." (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 39, citing Contract of Carriage ¶ 4.3.2.).

The parties' versions of the material events are substantially different.

Defendants allege that when flight attendant Sherron Hines ("Hines") asked that the passengers seated in the exit row, including plaintiff, pay attention to her exit row briefing, plaintiff was using his cell phone (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 16, citing Hines Dep. at 22). According to defendants, plaintiff did not get off his cell phone and "motioned" for Hines to give her exit row briefing (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 17, citing Hines Dep. at 23-24). Defendants claim that Hines again asked plaintiff to get off his cell phone, and plaintiff again motioned for Hines to give the exit row briefing while he continued his phone call (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 18-19, citing Hines Dep. at 24-25, 41, 46-47). Hines then offered plaintiff the opportunity to move to a seat that was not in the exit row so that plaintiff could continue his phone call (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 20-21, citing Hines Dep. at 43-45, 58 and Pl. Dep. at 92-95). Defendants allege that "[p]laintiff became confrontational and combative," refused to get off his cell phone and told Hines that "he would get off the aircraft before he moved his seat" (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 22-23, citing Hines Dep. at 26, 28, 38, 40, 52-55).

Defendants claim that a second flight attendant then told plaintiff that if he would not move from the exit row, he would have to get off the aircraft (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 25, citing Hines Dep. at 28, 38, 40, 52-54). After being informed ofthe situation with plaintiff, the captain of the flight agreed that if plaintiff would not move from the exit row, he would have to leave the aircraft (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 26-27, citing Hines Dep. at 29, 39). After speaking with a Spirit customer service agent, plaintiff voluntarily disembarked the aircraft before takeoff (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 28-29, citing Hines Dep. at 29-30, 39 and Pl. Dep. at 103-05).

Plaintiff alleges that he made no phone calls during the entire time he was on the aircraft (Declaration of Oscar Starker, dated Dec. 21, 2018 (D.I. 50) ("Pl. Decl.") ¶ 7). According to plaintiff, he told Hines that he was trying to call his mother but that his phone was not working, and Hines responded by calling plaintiff a "momma's boy" and telling him that he could get off the aircraft and be left behind if he wanted to make a phone call (Pl. Dep. at 84-85). Plaintiff claims that he then tried to text a friend to relay the message to plaintiff's mother that he was flying to Florida (Pl. Dep. at 87-88). While plaintiff was texting his friend, Hines asked him to stop texting so that she could give the exit row safety briefing (Pl. Dep. at 90). Plaintiff replied that he needed just "one second to pretty much press the button and send the text," but Hines responded, "No. Stop." (Pl. Dep. at 90). Plaintiff claims that he then stopped texting (Pl. Dep. at 91).

Although plaintiff had stopped texting, plaintiff states that Hines, nevertheless, instructed him to change seats with another passenger seated in front of plaintiff (Pl. Dep. at 91-92). Plaintiff asked why he was being told to change seats, but Hines did not answer (Pl. Dep. at 91-92). Plaintiff claims that when he refused to change seats, Hines said, "If you're not going to leave your seat we're going to have to force you out of the plane." (Pl. Dep. at 92-93). Plaintiff continued to refuse to change seats, at which point a male Spirit employee said to plaintiff, "If you're not going to move from your seat we're going to use physical force." (Pl. Dep. at 98). According to plaintiff, the male flight attendant then touched plaintiff's shoulder with his hand or arm and pushed plaintiff (Pl. Dep. at 101-02, 107-10, 113-14). Plaintiff then disembarked the plane before it departed "because [he] was afraid." (Pl. Dep. at 104).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a summons with notice in New York State Supreme Court, New York County, on August 14, 2017, alleging that Spirit committed an unspecified intentional tort by forcibly removing him from one of its flights and breached its contract with plaintiff; plaintiff sought $1,000,000.00 in damages (Summons with Notice, Notice of Removal,dated Sept. 7, 2017 (D.I. 1), Ex. 1). On September 7, 2017, defendants removed the action to this Court (Notice of Removal, dated Sept. 7, 2017 (D.I. 1)).

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on January 25, 2018, alleging six common law claims: (1) assault and battery against all defendants; (2) assault and battery against Spirit; (3) negligent hiring and retention; (4) breach of contract; (5) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and (6) intentional infliction of emotional distress; plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages (First Amended Compl., dated Jan. 25, 2018 (D.I. 18)).

III. Analysis

A. Applicable Legal Standards

The standards applicable to a motion for summary judgment are well-settled and require only brief review.

Summary judgment may be granted only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party . . . is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all factual inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). To grant the motion, the court must determine that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine factual issue derives from the "evidence [being] such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505. The nonmoving party cannot defeat summary judgment by "simply show[ing] that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986), or by a factual argument based on "conjecture or surmise," Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991). The Supreme Court teaches that "all that is required [from a nonmoving party] is that sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." First Nat'l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288-89, 88 S. Ct. 1575, 20 L.Ed.2d 569 (1968); seealsoHunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541,

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