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Stanley v. Expressjet Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

June 7, 2017




         In this religious discrimination action brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000, et seq., and its Michigan counterpart the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2101, et seq., Plaintiff, a Muslim woman who was employed as a flight attendant for Defendant ExpressJet Airlines, Inc. (“ExpressJet”), alleges that she was discriminated against on the basis of her religion when Defendant refused to accommodate her religiously held belief that prevents her from personally serving alcohol to passengers. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant retaliated against her by placing her on administrative leave pending termination for her opposition to Defendant's insistence that she personally serve alcohol to passengers, an employment practice that she sincerely and reasonably believed forced her to abandon her religious beliefs and was discriminatory.

         Defendant has filed a motion to dismiss or alternatively for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff's claims are preempted by the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. (“the RLA”). (ECF No. 7.) Plaintiff has filed a Response (ECF No. 11) and Defendant filed a Reply (ECF No. 12). The Court held a hearing on the motion on May 15, 2017. Following the hearing, both parties submitted supplemental briefing. (ECF Nos. 17, 18.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a practicing Muslim who converted to Islam on or about January, 2013. (ECF No. 1, Complaint ¶¶ 13-14.) Plaintiff began working for ExpressJet as a flight attendant shortly thereafter, on or about January 21, 2013. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) On her first day of employment with ExpressJet, Plaintiff requested that she be permitted to wear a hijab, a religiously-mandated Islamic head covering for women to cover their hair, ears, neck, and chest when in public or in the presence of men who are not immediate family members. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.) Plaintiff was granted permission by ExpressJet to wear her hijab, which she began wearing in her work as a flight attendant. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         When Plaintiff began her work as a flight attendant for ExpressJet she was unaware that her religion forbid both the consumption and serving of alcohol. She unwittingly served passengers alcoholic beverages as her job required until about June 1, 2015, when she learned of the proscription against serving alcohol. As soon as she became aware that serving alcohol to passengers violated her religiously held beliefs, she made a request to Defendant's Chief Flight Attendant Melanie Brown, that she be granted a religious accommodation that would permit her to not personally serve alcohol to passengers. (Id. ¶¶ 20-23.) Ms. Brown granted the request and instructed Plaintiff to make arrangements with the other flight attendant(s) on duty that they would take care of serving all alcoholic beverages to passengers while Plaintiff attended to other passenger needs.

         For the following couple of months, Plaintiff was able to make this arrangement with whomever worked with her on a given flight. Plaintiff would relay a passenger's request for an alcoholic beverage to the other flight attendant, who would then serve the alcoholic beverage. This arrangement worked smoothly and without any business interruptions or concerns expressed by Plaintiff's co-workers or passengers. (Id. ¶¶ 26-28.)

         On or around August, 2015, Plaintiff was informed by ExpressJet that she would no longer be allowed to direct passenger requests for alcohol to other flight attendants. Plaintiff was told to either resign from her employment or keep her employment and serve alcohol in violation of her religious beliefs. The revocation of the accommodation was purportedly in response to complaints by a flight attendant co-worker who complained about the fact that Plaintiff wore a hijab, possessed religious books in Arabic, and refused to personally serve alcohol. (Id. ¶¶ 30-32.)

         Plaintiff protested the revocation of the previously-granted arrangement to accommodate her religious objection to serving alcohol, both personally and through a written communication from her lawyer, to ExpressJet. Plaintiff's request was denied twice, once after a meeting with ExpressJet personnel and again after Plaintiff submitted a written religious accommodation request that she not be compelled to personally serve alcohol to passengers. (Id. ¶¶ 33-35.)

         On August 25, 2015, ExpressJet issued a letter to Plaintiff informing her that her previously granted religious accommodation was being revoked and that she was being placed on administrative leave for twelve months, after which her employment would be administratively terminated. (Id. ¶ 36.) Plaintiff claims that in revoking the previously granted accommodation and placing her on leave pending termination, ExpressJet management acted in conscious or reckless disregard for Plaintiff's right to be free from religious discrimination and/or retaliation under Title VII and its Michigan counterpart, the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 32.2101, et seq. (ELCRA). Plaintiff alleges that ExpressJet acted with malice and forced her to choose between her religion and her job, denied her a reasonable accommodation and put her on administrative leave and on track for eventual termination, causing her emotional distress, anxiety, humiliation, inconvenience, lost wages and benefits, and other damages. (Id. ¶¶ 37-39.) Plaintiff alleges that she has exhausted her administrative remedies and was issued a letter of “Dismissal and Notice of Rights” by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on May 6, 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 9-11.) Plaintiff filed her Complaint on August 5, 2016, within 90 days from the date on which she received her Dismissal and Notice of Rights from the EEOC. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         Defendant now moves to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim or, alternatively, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, for failure to create a genuine dispute of material fact.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES the motion.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a case where the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must “‘construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept its allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.'” Handy-Clay v. City of Memphis, 695 F.3d 531, 538 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Directv Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007)). The court “need not accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, or an unwarranted factual inference.” Handy-Clay, 695 F.3d at 539 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). See also Eidson v. State of Tenn. Dep't of Children's Servs., 510 F.3d 631, 634 (6th Cir. 2007) (“Conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual allegations will not suffice.”).

         In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the Supreme Court explained that “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Id. at 555 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (alteration in original). “To state a valid claim, a complaint must contain either direct or inferential ...

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