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Siddiqui v. Netjets Aviation, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

July 23, 2018




         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Parties' competing motions for summary judgment. After careful review of the briefing and record in this case, and with the benefit of oral argument, the Court enters final summary judgment for Defendant on all claims.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         A. The Parties

         Plaintiff Ameer Siddiqui is a Muslim of Pakistani descent. (DE 42-1, Pl's Statement of Material Facts (PSMF) ¶ 1). Mr. Siddiqui has worked as a pilot in the aviation industry since 1995, when he began working as a flight instructor in New York. (Id.). His former employer, Defendant NetJets Aviation, Inc., is the nation's largest fractional aircraft ownership company, with the largest private jet fleet in the world. In 2006, Mr. Siddiqui began working as a pilot for NetJets in its Citation Excel/XLS fleet. (DE 45, Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (DSMF) ¶ 1). Mr. Siddiqui flew private jets for individual "owners" (NetJets' name for its clients) primarily from the West Palm Beach location until NetJets suspended him from flying in September 2013.

         B. The Anonymous Call - Late 2012 / Early 2013

         In late 2012 or early 2013, Joseph Dalton, NetJets' Director of Aviation Security, received an anonymous call about Mr. Siddiqui. (DSMF ¶ 2; PSMF ¶ 3). According to Dalton, the anonymous caller was a NetJets' crewmember who was very concerned something would occur involving Mr. Siddiqui in the cockpit of a NetJets' aircraft. (DSMF ¶ 3; DE 45-3). The caller stated that Mr. Siddiqui had made statements that were offensive to certain religious groups and persons of certain national origins. (Id.). Specifically, Mr. Siddiqui had commented that the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy and did not happen the way everyone believed. (Id.). Mr. Siddiqui also spoke negatively about individuals of Jewish faith. (Id.). The caller relayed that another crew member had told his wife that if he were ever flying with Mr. Siddiqui and did not come home, the wife should know it was related to Mr. Siddiqui. (Id.). Dalton reported the call to NetJets' legal and labor relations departments. (Id.).[2]

         C. NetJets' Initial Interviews

         In January 2013, David Hyman, Chief Pilot of the Citation Excel/XLS fleet, and Anthony Mosso, NetJets' Labor and Employee Relations Manager, investigated the anonymous caller's allegations about Mr. Siddiqui. (Id. ¶ 4). Hyman and Mosso conducted telephone interviews of four crewmembers who had recently flown with him: Jeff Lindley, Gary Cox, Rick Price and Jim Rivera. (Id. ¶ 5). NetJets did not notify Mr. Siddiqui of the interviews. (PSMF ¶ 4).

         Hyman typed summaries of the interviews on January 11, 2013, and sent them to Eric Lampert, VP/Director of Operations, and Jennifer Beale, Assistant General Counsel. (DSMF ¶ 6). Hyman's notes state the following:

• Lindley said he was unwilling to speak freely about the details of his conversations with Mr. Siddiqui. But Lindley did say that while "he did not agree with [Mr. Siddiqui]'s perspective on Middle Eastern politics, [] he wasn't offended or taken aback by anything that was said during the course of [his] tour" with Mr. Siddiqui.
• Cox told Hyman and Mosso "specific details" of his conversations with Mr. Siddiqui that "indicate[d] strong anti-Israeli, if not anti-Semitic leanings." Regarding the Palestinian conflict, Cox alleged that Mr. Siddiqui had said, "how would you like it if someone kicked you out of your home?" Mr. Siddiqui also shared the viewpoint that Al Qaeda was not responsible for taking down the World Trade Center buildings. Cox, however, also "stated he was not offended or concerned by the conversations he had with" Mr. Siddiqui. Hyman's "take" from interviewing Cox was "that there were political views and [Cox] disagreed with them, but [Cox] could fly with [Mr. Siddiqui]."
• When Hyman first mentioned Mr. Siddiqui's name to Price, Price's "first words were, 'he worries me.'" Although Price "could not remember specific comments, he did say that [Mr. Siddiqui] expressed such anti-America / pro-Arab sentiments, that it made [him] 'nervous.'"
• Rivera told Hyman and Mosso that Mr. Siddiqui is a "big time conspiracy theorist" who had expressed that the U.S. Government and the Jewish people were responsible for bringing down the World Trade Center to blame it on Pakistan so they could take away Pakistan's nuclear weapons. According to Rivera, Mr. Siddiqui also had stated that the Taliban are "just a group of scholars.
Rivera also described Mr. Siddiqui as an "extreme anti-Semite." He said Mr. Siddiqui would frequently respond to news stories by stating, "You see, it's the Jews!" According to Hyman's notes, "Rivera's opinion is that [Mr. Siddiqui] is 'fertile ground' for Islamic extremism due to his frequent trips to Pakistan and his unabashed hatred of Israel and the U.S."
Rivera told Hyman and Mosso about two incidents when Rivera and Mr. Siddiqui were flying a passenger with "a Jewish sounding name." During one trip, Mr. Siddiqui showed Rivera the passenger manifest and said, "See her last name? She is related to one of the families responsible for persecuting the Palestinians in Israel." On another trip, Mr. Siddiqui stated that the passenger, whom Mr. Siddiqui believed was Jewish, had conspired with the U.S. government to destroy the World Trade Center for the purpose of implicating Pakistan. Rivera also recounted an incident when he and Mr. Siddiqui were eating breakfast in a hotel in Atlanta while they were both in uniform. Mr. Siddiqui became very angry about a news story that was on the television while they ate. The story, which related to an American policy, sparked Mr. Siddiqui's anger and he became very loud and demonstrative in expressing his anti-American perspective. When the waitress, who was from Africa, approached their table, Mr. Siddiqui spoke loudly to her regarding America's oppression of people from that region in order to seize their oil. Mr. Siddiqui was so loud that Rivera had to intervene to calm and quiet him down.

(DE 45-5). Based on these preliminary interviews, NetJets decided to conduct additional and more in-depth interviews. (DSMF ¶ 14). Beale prepared follow-up questions for the four pilots and emailed them to Mosso on February 4, 2013. (Id.).

         D. Follow Up Interviews

         The follow up interviews did not occur until six months later, in mid-August. (Id. ¶ 15). Moss and Hyman re-interviewed, via telephone, pilots Cox, Price and Rivera. (Id.; DE 45-7). Hyman's notes of these follow up calls reflect that Cox reaffirmed that Mr. Siddiqui told him on multiple occasions that he believed September 11 was a plot perpetrated by the U.S. Government. (DE 45-7). Cox also recalled conversations with Mr. Siddiqui regarding trips Mr. Siddiqui made to Pakistan due to his arranged marriage to a Pakistani woman. (Id.). Cox stated, however, that he did not have any safety concerns with Mr. Siddiqui. (Id.). During his second interview, Price again said that Mr. Siddiqui expressed an anti-American perspective, but he could not recall specific comments or provide further detail. (Id.). Rivera, for his part, reiterated that he was nervous when he first started flying with Mr. Siddiqui. (Id.). "As an example, [Rivera] described an occasion when he contacted his wife to warn her that if something happened to the aircraft (and crew), it would be related to [Mr. Siddiqui] and his political beliefs." [Id.). But Rivera also suggested that Mr. Siddiqui was "basically harmless." (Id.).

         Mosso and Hyman also interviewed a fifth pilot, Joe Wottreng. (DSMF ¶ 16). Wottreng stated that Mr. Siddiqui told him the September 11 attacks were perpetrated to prevent Pakistan from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that Mr. Siddiqui would "talk politics with anyone who will listen." (DE 45-7). He further stated that Mr. Siddiqui made the comment several times that the U.S. military are "the 'true terrorists.'" (Id.). Wottreng also noted that Mr. Siddiqui had traveled to Pakistan multiple times. (Id.). Wottreng said, however, that he "ha[d] no safety concern with Mr. Siddiqui." (Id.). And Hyman's notes of these follow up interviews state that "ultimately all people interviewed felt that [Mr. Siddiqui] is not a threat to passengers, equipment or crew. The general sentiment is that he likes to hear himself talk, but quickly cuts off the rant when asked to do so by his fellow crewmember." (Id.).

         About two weeks later, Hyman, Mosso and Beale conducted telephone interviews of two additional pilots, Joseph Parks and Scott Davis. (Id. ¶ 21). Beale prepared typed summaries of the interviews. (Id.; DE 45-11). According to her notes, Parks stated that he had not heard any pilots in his fleet make any racist or anti-Semitic remarks, and that Mr. Siddiqui never "had made any comments about Jewish passengers." (DE 45-11). But Parks did say that Mr. Siddiqui made comments about Jews being responsible for September 11 and other world problems. (Id.). Parks also said, "[Mr. Siddiqui] told him that he ([Mr. Siddiqui]) was questioned by the CIA or FBI after the world trade center bombings." (Id.). When asked if he felt Mr. Siddiqui was a safety risk, Parks said, "I really don't know. If I had the choice, I'd rather fly with [another pilot], but [Mr. Siddiqui] didn't preach anything ... I know it's kind of vague, but we got along pretty good ... we had dinner together a couple of nights. He wasn't reclusive or preaching to me." (Id.). Parks also said during the phone interview that "he has heard from other people who have flown with [Mr. Siddiqui] that he ticked them off, but he can't remember specifically who right now." (Id.). Parks further noted he "goes back to Pakistan/India all the time..." (Id.).

         During his interview, Davis said it had been a while since he had flown with Mr. Siddiqui, but he did "have some questions ... And in talking with other pilots we've shared the same sentiment." (Id.). Although he could not recall specific comments, he recalled one particular flight where they were picking up a Jewish passenger and Mr. Siddiqui said something negative-he couldn't remember the exact wording but said "If I were Jewish I would have been offended." (Id.). Davis also said he had heard that "apparently [Mr. Siddiqui] took a leave of absence to go back to Pakistan for a few months and some people felt he picked up a lot of Anti-American sentiment while over there. . . ." (Id.).

         E. NetJets Places Mr. Siddiqui On Administrative Leave And Refers Him To The FBI

         Toward the end of August, Beale emailed a summary of Mr. Siddiqui's employment history[3] and the notes from the January 2013 preliminary interviews and the August 2013 follow-up interviews to William Noe, NetJets' President and Chief Operating Officer. (DSMF ¶ 18). Based on this information, and after discussing Mr. Siddiqui's actions with Colleen Nissl and Eric Lampert (VP/Director of Operations), Noe decided to place Mr. Siddiqui on administrative leave. (Id. ¶ 19). Noe testified that it is NetJets' practice to put an employee on paid administrative leave while NetJets investigates any issues raised about that employee. (DSMF ¶ 20). Noe stated that employees are placed on leave for two reasons: 1) to determine whether the information is credible, and 2) for safety reasons. (Id.). According to Noe, it is not fair for individual crew members "to know that they are being scrutinized or investigated and then put them back out in the airplane and expect them not to be distracted thinking about it." (Id.).

         On September 7, 2013, Mr. Siddiqui received an email from then-Assistant Director of Flight Operations, Brent Owens, informing him that NetJets had placed him on paid administrative leave as of September 7, 2013, while NetJets "investigate[d] allegations of security concerns." (DSMF ¶ 22; PSMF ¶ 5). Mr. Siddiqui was directed to report to NetJets' headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, two days later for a meeting regarding his suspension. (PSMF ¶ 5). During the meeting, he met with Moss, Brent Owens, and NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots ("NJASAP") union representative Paul Konrath. (PSMF ¶ 5-6). Mr. Siddiqui was asked to return his aircraft key and badge. (Id.).

         That day, Dalton and Ron Brower, NetJets' Corporate Secretary and Associate General Counsel, met with the FBI Columbus Joint Terrorism Task Force regarding Mr. Siddiqui's conduct and statements. (DSMF ¶ 24). According to NetJets, it waited for the FBI to complete its investigation before taking any further action on Mr. Siddiqui's case. (Id. ¶ 25).

         On December 5, 2013, the FBI contacted Mr. Siddiqui seeking to meet with him. (PSMF ¶ 9). Mr. Siddiqui agreed to meet that evening. (Id.). During the meeting, the two FBI agents questioned Mr. Siddiqui generally about terrorism, September 11, his divorce, and other pilots; they also disclosed that NetJets had contacted the FBI to open an inquiry into him. (Id.). The FBI agents assured Mr. Siddiqui the meeting was not part of any investigation, and that they were merely following up on an inquiry. (Id.). The agents indicated they would notify Joseph Dalton, NetJets' Director of Aviation Security, that the FBI would be closing the inquiry. (Id.). The FBI's inquiry concluded in approximately February 2014; it found no reason for concern or further action, and it conveyed this conclusion to NetJets in early 2014. (Id.; DE 45-10 at 84:14-85:2).

         F. Mr. Siddiqui's Extended Administrative Leave

         From 2014 to 2015, Mr. Siddiqui remained on administrative leave and could not fly for NetJets. (PSMF ¶ 10). He continued working as an aircraft mechanic for American Airlines during this time. (Id.). Although NetJets paid Mr. Siddiqui his full salary, benefits, and a bonus during this leave, Mr. Siddiqui claims the length of the leave has had severe repercussions for his career. (DSMF ¶ 47; PSMF ¶ 10). For instance, because he had no permission to fly or otherwise meet his flight training requirements, he claims he lost opportunities for training and continuing education necessary to meet regulatory requirements for flying as a pilot. See (DE 81). He also alleges that he became ineligible to keep the training required to maintain active flight status. (Id.; DE 48).

         According to NetJets, Mr. Siddiqui's case did not progress in 2014 because its management was engaged in contentious negotiations with the pilots' union and two other employee groups. (DSMF ¶ 26). These negotiations occupied a large amount of time for NetJets' employees in the labor relations department, including Mark Okey, who was Vice President for Labor Contract Compliance. (Id.). Okey and others in the department were responsible for conducting crewmember review boards ("CRBs") for more serious matters, such as Mr. Siddiqui's.[4] (Id.). In the same time period, however, NetJets' Labor Department was able to marshal the personnel and resources to conduct other CRBs, although those involved different charges of misconduct. See (DE 48 ¶ 26; DE 42-2 at 183-86; DE 47-1). In addition to the union negotiations, NetJets identifies several key management changes at NetJets that it claims delayed the scheduling of Mr. Siddiqui's CRB. (DSMF ¶ 27). Alan Bobo took over as the Director of Operations, the position ultimately responsible for management of the flight crews and regulatory and compliance operations, in July 2015. (Id.). A new president started at NetJets in 2015 as well. (Id.).

         G. Mr. Siddiqui's Crewmember Review Board

         In January 2015, NetJets began the process of scheduling a CRB for Mr. Siddiqui. (DSMF ¶ 28). A CRB consists of three to five employees from various NetJets departments assembled to investigate matters concerning crewmembers, including pilots. (Id. ¶ 29). During the CRB, the board members interview the employee in the presence of his or her union representative. (Id.).

         On February 16, 2015, Mr. Siddiqui's counsel at the time sent a letter to NetJets' in-house counsel, seeking information about Mr. Siddiqui's employment status, and an explanation for the delay in resolving any issues related to that status. The letter also raised Mr. Siddiqui's concerns about potential discrimination and retaliation. NetJets responded on March 2, 2015, asserting it would not discuss such matters and that, in any event, it does not discriminate or retaliate against employees such as Mr. Siddiqui. (PSMF¶11;DE42-2at103).

         On March 29, 2015, Mr. Siddiqui was asked to travel to Columbus, Ohio, to attend a CRB hearing scheduled for April 1, 2015. (DSMF ¶ 30). Mr. Siddiqui was advised that the CRB was investigating his alleged inappropriate statements relating to owners and/or violations of NetJet's Professional Conduct and Prohibition Against Harassment Policy. (Id.). The notice advised Mr. Siddiqui that these alleged inappropriate statements included anti-Semitic comments and derogatory statements about national origin.[5] (Id.).

         The CRB hearing occurred on April 1, 2015. (Id. ¶ 31). The panel consisted of Erica Leighton, Dan Driscoll, Trent Edwards, and Mark Okey. (DE 45-18). Mr. Siddiqui was represented by union attorney Sonya Cook and union steward Mike Monkevicz. (DSMF ¶ 31). At the start of the CRB hearing, Okey advised Mr. Siddiqui about the importance of integrity and the board's expectation of complete honesty. (Id. ¶ 32). Okey also told Mr. Siddiqui that lying is "a separate and distinct reason for discipline at NetJets, up to and including discharge." (Id. 32). Mr. Siddiqui indicated he understood. (Id.).

         Mr. Siddiqui was asked a series of questions during the CRB about whether he had made specific types of statements. (Id. ¶ 33). He was asked about his comments regarding Jews, the Jewish religion, NetJets' passengers whom Mr. Siddiqui assumed or knew to be Jewish, the September 11 attacks, and the U.S. military's alleged terroristic role. (Id.; DE 45-18). In response to the panel's questions, Mr. Siddiqui repeatedly denied making any statements described by the pilots who had been interviewed. (Id. ΒΆ 34; DE 45-18). After a break in the CRB hearing, during which Mr. ...

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