Young v. American Airlines, Inc., ED 85898.

Decision Date13 December 2005
Docket NumberNo. ED 85898.,ED 85898.
Citation182 S.W.3d 647
PartiesLamonte R. YOUNG, Sr., Appellant, v. AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., Respondent.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Lee Clayton Goodman, St. Louis, MO, for appellant.

David H. Luce, Carmody MacDonald P.C., Clayton, MO, for respondent.

KENNETH M. ROMINES, Judge.

Plaintiff-Appellant Lamonte R. Young, Sr. ("Young" or "Appellant") appeals from the decision of the trial court granting Defendant-Respondent American Airlines's ("American") motion for summary judgment. Young, an African-American, brought an action against his employer, American, alleging wrongful termination, pursuant to the Missouri Human Rights Act, Section 213.050 RSMo. (2000),1 premised upon alleged racial discrimination. The incident for which Young was fired involved an altercation with two white employees over the use of a telephone in the company break room. Young admitted violating company policy by making offensive and threatening comments, and he was subsequently fired pursuant to company policy. In a written statement made before he was fired, however, Young also alleged that two white employees made comments to him that were racially offensive. The two white employees admitted participating in the altercation and to making rude comments, but they did not admit to making the racially offensive comments, which would be a violation of company policy. The white employees were punished for their conduct, but they were not fired. We cannot say with confidence on this record that American is due judgment as a matter of law, and thus, we reverse and remand.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We consider the record from an appeal of summary judgment in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-America Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo.1993) (hereinafter "ITT"). Facts established by affidavit, or other proof in support of a party's motion, are taken as true unless contradicted by the non-moving party's response to the summary judgment motion. Id. We accord the non-moving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the record below. Id. The propriety of summary judgment is purely an issue of law, and thus, our review is de novo. Id.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Our review of the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Young, reveals that Young was employed by American from 2 October 1995 until he was fired on 18 October 2002. Young was fired as a direct consequence of an altercation with two fellow employees on 9 October 2002. During his seven years of employment with American as a fleet service clerk, Young had a satisfactory work record and generally performed his duties without incident. Prior to the incident in question, Young had never been subjected to a hostile work environment, including never experiencing any inappropriate behavior, jokes, or comments because of his race.

In 2002, American instituted a new Rules of Conduct for its employees. One of the key components of American's new set of rules was to prohibit offensive or discriminatory speech or conduct on company grounds. The rules also provide strict punishment for employees who violate the rules. As pertinent to this case, Rule of Conduct 32 states:

Behavior that violates the company's Work Environment Policy, even if intended as a joke, is absolutely prohibited and will be grounds for severe corrective action, up to and including termination of employment. This includes, but is not limited to, threatening, intimidating, interfering with, or abusive, demeaning, or violent behavior toward another employee, contractor, or vendor, while either on or off duty. Behavior that is also hate related will result in immediate termination of employment, regardless of length of service or prior employment record.

American defined "hate-related behavior" as:

[A]ny action or statement that suggests hatred for or hostility against a person because of his or her race, sexual orientation, religion, or other protected characteristic, including, but in no way limited to, bigoted slurs, drawings, and symbols such as a hangman's noose, a swastika, or graffiti.

The record reveals that American went to great lengths to ensure that all of its employees were apprised of and familiar with these new policies. American specifically warned its employees that, pursuant to Rule 32, it would have zero tolerance for hate-related conduct, and immediate dismissal would result for any violation. Furthermore, pursuant to company policy, Young signed a statement acknowledging that he had read and understood Rule 32.

The incident that gave rise to the underlying litigation took place on 9 October 2002, and occurred in a company break room. Young was using the phone in the break room when a fellow employee, Chris White ("White"), entered the room to use the phone. According to White, Young was making a personal call, and White claimed that he needed to make an important call for company business. White told Young to get off the phone several times, but Young refused each request. Shortly after White asked Young to get off the phone, another American employee, Kevin McAndrew ("McAndrew"), entered the room and also asked Young to get off the phone.

According to Young's initial written account of the incident, McAndrew said, "hang up the [expletive deleted] phone." There was also evidence that Young responded by calling McAndrew a "punk gay" and a "pussy." Young further alleged in his statement that McAndrew said, "hang up the phone you peace a[sic] `shit,'" to which Young admitted responding with an expletive. However, Young also alleged that McAndrew used the term "black ass," as well as other expletives, during this exchange.

Young also alleged that McAndrew actually reached toward the phone as if to hang it up. According to both White and McAndrew, Young response was to stand up, make a threatening gesture with the phone, and threaten to hit McAndrew with the phone. During this exchange, Young also said, "I'll hit you with the phone you [expletive delete] faggot." Feeling threatened, McAndrew backed away and eventually exited the room.

Following this exchange between Young and McAndrew, White approached Young and told him that he was gay and that his use of the word faggot was as if he had used the "N word" to Young. White subsequently admitted to using the term "N word." However, Young also claimed in his written statement that during this exchange White used the actual word to which the term "N word" refers. White denied ever using the actual word at any time.

Immediately after the confrontation, Julie Davis ("Davis"), an American personnel supervisor, began an investigation of the incident. Davis interviewed all three men and took their statements. Davis eventually determined that Young's actions constituted two separate violations of Rule 32, either of which justified termination: first, Young's threatening gesture toward McAndrew with the phone, and second, his use of the word "faggot."

Furthermore, Davis found that McAndrew had used vulgarity during the encounter. As a result, McAndrew was reprimanded in a written letter that encouraged him to "consider the seriousness" of his actions, and to "correct these problems." However, Davis did not find that McAndrew's conduct constituted a violation of the "hate related" provision of Rule 32, and thus, he was not terminated.

Finally, Davis found that White had "endangered himself in violating American Airlines rule of conduct # 32" by using the term "the `N' word" during the confrontation with Young. However, Davis did not find that White violated the "hate related" provision of Rule 32, and thus, he was not fired for his conduct.

After Davis fired Young, Young contacted his union representative and filed a grievance for wrongful termination. American subsequently denied Young's grievance, Young appealed this decision, and a full arbitration hearing was held. At the hearing, several witnesses testified, including Young, White, McAndrew, and Davis. During the course of the arbitration hearings, Young alleged that McAndrew had made even more offensive comments during the confrontation. Specifically, he alleged that McAndrew said, "get off the phone you black piece of shit." Young further alleged that McAndrew said, "get off the phone or I will hang up the phone for you, you black ass hole."

The arbitrators ultimately denied Young's appeal, and found that American had just cause to terminate his employment. Following the arbitrator's decision, Young filed this action in the circuit court. After a period of discovery, American filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the circuit court should dismiss Young's action primarily because he could not demonstrate that his conduct was similar to that of either White or McAndrew and thus, American was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The circuit court initially denied American's motion for summary judgment. However, after American filed a motion for reconsideration of its original motion, the circuit court, without providing a written opinion explaining its rationale, reversed its original ruling and dismissed Young's case.

DISCUSSION

At its core, this case involves determining whether a private company violated state and federal anti-discrimination law when it fired an African-American employee who admitted violating company policy during a confrontation with two white employees, where the white employees admitted participating in the confrontation, but did not specifically admit to violating company policy, despite the black employee's allegations to the contrary. This court, of course, need not decide the difficult factual questions involved; they will be left to a jury to decide.

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