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Hamilton v. Delta Air Lines Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

July 24, 2018



          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.

         1. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, an African American, claims that Defendant removed him from one of its flights due to his race. (Docket #1). On June 1, 2018, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that Plaintiff was removed for his disruptive behavior, not because of his skin color. See generally (Docket #17 and #18). Plaintiff responded to the motion on July 2, 2018, (Docket #30), and Defendant replied on July 16, 2018, (Docket #31). For the reasons explained below, Defendant's motion must be granted.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 56 provides that the “court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Boss v. Castro, 816 F.3d 910, 916 (7th Cir. 2016). A “genuine” dispute of material fact is created when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court construes all facts and reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the non-movant. Bridge v. New Holland Logansport, Inc., 815 F.3d 356, 360 (7th Cir. 2016). In assessing the parties' proposed facts, the Court must not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility; the Seventh Circuit instructs that “we leave those tasks to factfinders.” Berry v. Chi. Transit Auth., 618 F.3d 688, 691 (7th Cir. 2010).

         3. RELEVANT FACTS

         The following facts are material to the Court's disposition.[1] Plaintiff, a black man and a resident of Milwaukee, bought a ticket for Defendant's April 18, 2017 flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee. Also on the flight were Michael and Krista Rosolino (“Michael” and “Krista, ” respectively, and the “Rosolinos” collectively), both of whom are lawyers living in Milwaukee. Plaintiff and the Rosolinos were seated near each other, and engaged in friendly interaction while they waited for the plane to depart from the gate.

         During this time, Plaintiff and several passengers near him were using their cell phones. Kathryn Smith (“Smith”), a flight attendant, singled out Plaintiff, telling him that he needed to put his phone away immediately. The Rosolinos were concerned by Smith's “unkindly” tone towards Plaintiff. Michael also noticed that the other cell phone using passengers whom Smith did not chastise were white men.

         The plane eventually left the gate and waited on the tarmac for its turn to move onto the runway. The fasten-seatbelt sign was active and passengers had been instructed not to leave their seats. Unfortunately, Plaintiff felt a strong urge to use the bathroom. Plaintiff heard the pilot, Captain Yuri Rodin (“Rodin”), announce that the place was third in line for takeoff, so he believed he had an opportunity to go.[2] Plaintiff went to the rear of the plane where he encountered Smith again. He asked for permission to use the bathroom. Smith responded that if he did, the plane would lose its spot in line for takeoff. She told Plaintiff to return to his seat and, in accordance with Defendant's policies and FAA regulations, immediately called Rodin to let him know that a passenger was not seated.

         Plaintiff decided he would try to wait it out and returned to his seat. After some time elapsed, between ten and thirty minutes, Plaintiff's need to use the bathroom became an emergency. When he could wait no longer, Plaintiff got up again and returned to the rear bathroom. Plaintiff again met Smith and asked for permission to use the bathroom. She repeated that the plane would lose its place in line and that Plaintiff needed to take his seat. Plaintiff responded that it was an emergency. Plaintiff says Smith appeared aggravated at this and gestured toward the bathroom door. He took this as her approval and so used the bathroom. He was in and out in less than a minute.

         When Plaintiff emerged, Smith reminded Plaintiff that they would now lose their place in line because of him. Plaintiff apologized, reiterating that it had been an emergency. While Plaintiff was inside, Smith had called Rodin again to report what had happened. She said that Plaintiff had or was having an emergency and that he was not complying with her instructions. Rodin was unsure of what the emergency was, as Smith did not explain. She now claims to not know what Plaintiff's emergency was.

         While the plane was maneuvering towards the runway, Michael saw a number of other passengers get up to retrieve items from the overhead bin. Those passengers did so and sat back down without a reaction from the flight crew, though like Plaintiff those passengers were violating the fasten-seatbelt order. Michael does not identify the race of those passengers. Further, neither Plaintiff nor the Rosolinos saw any other passengers attempt to use the bathroom around the time Plaintiff did.

         After the bathroom incident, there was an announcement that the plane would be returning to the gate and a passenger would be removed. Once back at the gate, two different employees of Defendant came to speak with Plaintiff and asked him to leave the plane. Plaintiff refused each time, demanding an explanation as to why this was happening. After the second employee left, all passengers were directed to leave the plane. Some of those near Plaintiff discussed refusing to leave to show solidarity with him. Plaintiff advised them against this and everyone exited the plane.

         When he left the aircraft, Plaintiff was immediately confronted by FBI agents. Plaintiff, Michael (he offered to briefly represent Plaintiff), and the agents went to another area of the terminal to speak. Plaintiff calmly told the agents his version of events. Michael observed that the agents seemed ready for Plaintiff to be violent or angry. Indeed, the agents said that they believed Plaintiff had been angry and combative on the plane.[3]This information could only have come from Defendant's employees, most likely Smith herself. The agents briefly interviewed some other passengers, then told Plaintiff he was free to go. Plaintiff was not charged with any crimes. The agents left Plaintiff with the instruction that it was up to him to speak with Defendant's representatives about being allowed back on ...

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