Tenth Circuit rules in favor of airline in discrimination case when employee’s mistake leads to his termination

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled for Delta Airlines in an appeal by a former employee who claimed he was terminated because of racial and national origin discrimination.

Airline fires employee after plane damaged

Maahnchooh Ghogomu worked for Delta Airlines at the Tulsa International Airport. At the Tulsa International Airport, every Delta flight is supposed to have a “final walk around” conducted by an employee to double-check certain things before the plane leaves the gate. The employee who pushes the plane from the gate is responsible for this check. However, on Delta flight 5188, the plane’s fuel door was not secured before it took off, resulting in damage to the airplane when it arrived in Detroit.

Delta investigated the incident and determined that Ghogomu was the employee who had been responsible for the final walk around before the flight, so they fired him. Ghogomu claimed the termination was because of his race and nationality (Cameroon) and brought an EEOC claim and then a federal lawsuit.

Courts look to the “why” of the termination decision

At the district court, the case never made it to trial. Delta Airlines filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Ghogomu because of his failure to conduct the final walk around. The district court granted the motion, and Ghogomu, representing himself, filed an appeal with the Tenth Circuit.

Ghogomu made several arguments on appeal, but the crux was simple: Delta Airlines was lying about its investigation. Delta Airlines employees had stated they had watched the surveillance video of pre-flight and identified Ghogomu as the individual who pushed the flight from the gate. Therefore, he was responsible for the final walk around. But, by the time of the lawsuit, the video was gone – so, Ghogomu claimed, Delta Airlines must be lying about the investigation. Additionally, according to Ghogomu, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report did not blame him.

At first glance, one might assume that Ghogomu had successfully created a question of fact. If Delta Airlines said one thing, and Ghogomu and the FAA said another, shouldn’t a jury decide the case? But, as the district court had noted, it is important to determine what exactly Ghogomu was and was not claiming. While he claimed that the videotape’s existence was a complete fabrication and that Delta Airlines was engaging in an elaborate cover-up by having three employees lie about having seen the videotape, Ghogomu did not actually deny that he was responsible for the final walk around. He testified only that he did not remember marshalling out the flight that morning.

The FAA’s report was of no help to him, either, as it only found that the person who had fueled the airplane had left the fuel door open. This finding did not help Ghogomu, however, who had never been accused of opening the door, but rather not noticing that it was unsecured and closing it during the required final walk around.

Despite Ghogomu’s arguments, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court in favor of the employer.

As the court noted, “the question is why.” Indeed, the question in every discrimination case is why the adverse action was taken – and when the employee makes such a big mistake, claims of lies and conspiracy theories will not win.

Takeaway

This case should reassure employers that termination is still a viable option when an employee makes a crucial mistake or fails to satisfactorily perform his or her job. Of course, Delta Airlines would have had an easier argument if it had simply retained a copy of the videotape showing Ghogomu was the person responsible for failing to notice the open fuel door. Even with terminations that seem clear cut, retaining evidence in favor of the termination may prove to be helpful.

Maahnchooh Ghogomu v. Delta Airlines Global Services LLC et al., Case No. 15-5112, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit