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Clinkenbeard v. Air Transport International

December 14, 2006

LARRY J. CLINKENBEARD PLAINTIFF
v.
AIR TRANSPORT INTERNATIONAL, INC. DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James M. Moody United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Pending is the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. The Plaintiff has responded. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is GRANTED.

Facts

The material facts of the case are undisputed. Plaintiff is a former employee of Defendant Air Transport International, Inc. ("ATI"). He was employed as a flight mechanic for ATI, an air transporter of heavy freight worldwide. Plaintiff was terminated in December 2004 for allegedly making a false entry in an ATI aircraft flight log. Plaintiff claims he was terminated because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Plaintiff admits that on a flight scheduled to depart from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, he made an entry to the flight log indicating that there was a discrepancy, or malfunction, in the aircraft. Plaintiff wrote: "on post flight found forward auxiliary fill circuit breaker popped. Reset breaker. No help. Troubleshot system. Forward auxiliary gauge is bad." (Shurtleff Aff, Ex. 1, Att. A). FAA regulations require that for each discrepancy a corrective action be taken before the aircraft can be cleared for flight again. Some discrepancies may be deferred for later repair if the proper deferral procedures are followed. The corrective action for the discrepancy at issue was entered into the flight log and signed by Plaintiff. It stated, "deferred forward auxiliary fuel tank I/A/W [in accordance with] MEL 28-18-00 CAT C This is DMI # 31004. No fly 12/17/04." (Shurtleff Aff., Ex. 1, Att. A). The process for deferring a discrepancy is to call ATI maintenance control and obtain a DMI (Deferred Maintenance Item) number. The purpose of obtaining the number is to track the discrepancy and document its repair within the period prescribed.

Plaintiff spoke with ATI maintenance controller Peter Gilbert regarding the deferral of the discrepancy. The conversation was tape recorded by ATI as all conversations are between flight mechanics and maintenance control. Plaintiff described the problem with the forward fill tank valve and asked for a deferral on this discrepancy. Gilbert asked Plaintiff if the "affected valve [was] secured closed?" Plaintiff answered "yes." (Ex. 3, Plaintiff's Dep. at 90). Gilbert told Plaintiff that the relevant Minimum Equipment List ("MEL") was 28-18-00 and that it was a Category C. (Plaintiff's Dep. At 84). ATI's General Maintenance manual provides a deferred maintenance procedure and contains an MEL which defines the equipment which may be inoperable and the aircraft still be permitted to fly. However, maintenance on equipment can be deferred only if the procedures set out in the relevant MEL for the particular equipment have been complied with fully. MEL 28-18-00 contains the procedure for deferring repair of the auxiliary tank fill valve. It states that a valve may be inoperative provided it is "secured CLOSED." (Shurtleff Aff., Ex. 1, Att. B).

Plaintiff admits that he told Gilbert the affected valve had been secured closed. However, Plaintiff had not secured the fill valve closed at that point. He states in his affidavit that he planned to wire the valve closed before the plane was cleared for flight. Instead, Plaintiff waited until the plane had been refueled. A member of the flight crew discovered that there was fuel leaking from the right wing leading fuel edge forward auxiliary tank. Plaintiff admits that this leak occurred because the fill valve was still open and fuel was allowed to enter the auxiliary tank during refueling of the plane. Plaintiff again took corrective action which he entered as discrepancy number 2 on page 105031 of the flight log. Plaintiff "emptied forward auxiliary tank and disconnected electrical power from fill valve and wired fill valve in closed position. (Shurtleff Aff., Ex. 1, Att. A). The flight scheduled to leave Diego Garcia was delayed as a result of Plaintiff's action until the next morning. Plaintiff admits that in hindsight he would have made the decision to wire the fuel fill valve closed at the particular time he entered the action in the flight log because it may have been more convenient for him and other crew members. (Plaintiff's Aff., Ex. D). There is evidence in the record that if the airplane had departed without the crew knowing that the auxiliary tank had been filled with fuel, the calculations as to the aircraft's center of gravity would have been in error. This error could have potentially caused the loss of the aircraft and the crew. (Shurtleff Aff., Ex. 1 at para. 18-19).

Following this incident, Plaintiff's supervisor Brian Dufour was notified about the fuel leak on Diego Garcia from ATI maintenance control. Dufour reviewed the relevant log pages and listened to the recorded conversation between Plaintiff and Gilbert. After conferring with his supervisor, Dufour recommended that Plaintiff receive a final warning, coaching and counseling for the incident. (Ex. 4(a)). Dufour presented this disciplinary action to Richard Shurtleff, then Vice President of Technical Services. Shurtleff had to approve the action before Dufour could issue the letter to Plaintiff. (Shurtleff Aff., Ex. 1). Shurtleff did not immediately approve the disciplinary action recommended by Dufour. Shurtleff conferred with ATI's Vice President of Human Resources, John Turnipseed, and finally concluded that Plaintiff should be terminated for falsifying the flight log entry and potentially endangering the aircraft and crew. Plaintiff filed suit against ATI for age discrimination on June 27, 2005.

Standard for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue of material fact, so that the dispute may be decided solely on legal grounds. Holloway v. Lockhart, 813 F.2d 874 (8th Cir. 1987); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. The Supreme Court has established guidelines to assist trial courts in determining whether this standard has been met:

The inquiry is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for trial -- whether, in other words, there are genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.

Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has cautioned that summary judgment should be invoked carefully so that no person will be improperly deprived of a trial of disputed factual issues. Inland Oil & Transport Co. v. United States, 600 F.2d 725 (8th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 991 (1979). The Eighth Circuit set out the burden of the parties in connection with a summary judgment motion in Counts v. M.K. Ferguson Co., 862 F.2d 1338 (8th Cir. 1988):

[T]he burden on the moving party for summary judgment is only to demonstrate, i.e., '[to] point out to the District Court,' that the record does not disclose a genuine dispute on a material fact. It is enough for the movant to bring up the fact that the record does not contain such an issue and to identify that part of the record which bears out his assertion. Once this is done, his burden is discharged, and, if the record in fact bears out the claim that no genuine dispute exists on any material fact, it is then the respondent's burden to set forth affirmative evidence, ...


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