Parker v. United Airlines, No. 21-4093 (10th Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
Plaintiff-appellant Jeannie Parker fielded calls for United Airliines, booking flight reservations. Parker took FMLA leave because she had a vision disorder and her father had cancer. About five months after approving the leave, Parker’s supervisor suspected Parker was avoiding new calls by telling customers that she would get additional information, putting the customers on hold, and chatting with coworkers about personal matters while the customers waited. The supervisor characterized Parker’s conduct as “call avoidance.” This suspicion led to a meeting between the supervisor, Parker, and a union representative. Following the meeting, United suspended Parker while investigating her performance. During this investigation, the supervisor reviewed more of Parker’s phone calls with customers and recommended that United fire Parker. United’s policies prohibited the supervisor from firing Parker; United had to select a manager to conduct a meeting and allow participation by Parker, her supervisor, and a union representative. All of them could present arguments and evidence, and the manager would decide whether to fire Parker. At the second meeting, the union representative asked United to apply its progressive discipline policy rather than terminate Parker's employment, to which United declined. Policy allowed Parker to appeal by filing a grievance; if she were to submit a grievance, another manager would conduct the appeal, wherein Parker could again be represented by the union, and present additional arguments. Parker filed a grievance but declined to participate, relying on her union representative. The union representative admitted in the conference call that Parker had “no excuse for the demonstrated behavior of call avoidance except for being under extreme mental duress.” With this admission, the union representative asked United to give Parker another chance. The senior manager declined and concluded that United hadn’t acted improperly in firing Parker. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether United's termination was made in retaliation for Parker's taking FMLA leave. Specifically, whether FMLA's prohibition against retaliation applied when the employee obtained consideration by independent decisionmakers. "Retaliation entails a causal link between an employee’s use of FMLA leave and the firing. That causal link is broken when an independent decisionmaker conducts her own investigation and decides to fire the employee." The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to United.