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Vaughan v. The Boeing Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 19, 2017

THOMAS K. VAUGHAN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOEING COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge

         This is an unfortunate case of a falling out between employer and employee. Plaintiff Thomas K. Vaughan, Jr., an African American, worked for Defendant The Boeing Company for eighteen years before being fired for an altercation with a supervisor. Shortly after Vaughan was rehired under a probationary agreement and assigned a different role, he violated a Boeing safety-related employee policy multiple times, leading to a three-day suspension. Once back, Vaughan ran afoul of employee policies again and was fired for good. He sued Boeing for race discrimination and retaliation, and Boeing now moves for summary judgment. Though it is always troubling when a veteran employee loses a good, stable job, I find that Vaughan's claims fail as a matter of law and will therefore grant Boeing's Motion.

         I. Background

         Vaughan began working at Boeing's Ridley Park plant in 1995. He held different roles over the years, and in 2007 became a composite fabricator, working with the type of materials- like graphite, Kevlar, and resin-that are used to make aircraft. Specifically, Vaughan did “deflash, ” the grinding down of aircraft parts to ensure there are no sharp edges. Six years into that role, however, Vaughan got into an altercation with his supervisor and was fired-but after his union negotiated a settlement, Vaughan was allowed to return to work under the terms of a Last Chance Agreement. The Agreement required Vaughan to meet regularly with a counselor, Richard Buxton, who worked onsite at Boeing but was employed by a separate counseling company.[1]

         The Agreement also provided, in line with its title, that Vaughan was “on notice that any incident, considered to be insubordination, either direct or indirect, will result in his immediate discharge.”

         A. Initial Issues After Vaughan's Return

         Vaughan returned to Boeing on October 11, 2013, still a composite fabricator but now reassigned from deflash to “bonding, ” which in Vaughan's case entailed attaching fuel bag hangers to aircraft. He was also put in a new department (working on V-22 Ospreys) and given a new supervisor-Charles Moyer, who is white. Of the twenty-odd employees who did bonding on V-22 Ospreys under Moyer, Vaughan was the only one who is black.

         Vaughan's first assignment back, which continued for almost a month, was sweeping the floor. The parties disagree about why. Boeing claims that for safety reasons it usually requires employees to complete trainings and obtain certifications relevant to their type of work before starting. For Vaughan, who was new to bonding, there were two required certifications, and it took until October 18 for him to obtain the first and until October 31 for the second. Before the first, he could not do any substantive bonding work at all, and before the second, he could not perform his primary assignment of attaching fuel bag hangers. So in the meantime, Vaughan was told to sweep-which Boeing maintains was the usual practice.[2]

         Vaughan gives a different explanation.[3] The gist of his account is that Boeing thrust him into a new job and did not properly train him to do that job, telling him to sweep instead. The certifications rationale, Vaughan claims, is just a post hoc excuse that was not given at the time. Moreover, the training Vaughan was supposed to receive (and needed), from coworkers whom Moyer assigned to help Vaughan learn bonding, never actually happened-in fact, those coworkers acted dismissively toward him.

         As a result, Vaughan complained about the lack of training and about having to sweep to multiple people, including Moyer, and raised it during an October 28 counseling session with Buxton. During that session Vaughan did not directly connect his sweeping complaints to discrimination, [4] but Buxton independently thought it possible that discrimination was the cause and got Vaughan's permission to reveal their otherwise-confidential exchange to Paul Mulholland, Boeing's human resources head. Buxton told Mulholland only “what Mr. Vaughan had related to” him: that Vaughan “was spending an unusual amount of time sweeping the floor.” Buxton Dep. 42:3-9. Although Mulholland then spoke with Vaughan and Moyer about the situation, nothing changed immediately.

         A few days later, Vaughan finished his last certification, which allowed him to start attaching fuel bag hangers. But Vaughan's real gripe continued to be with the lack of hands-on, on-the-job training showing him how to bond-without which, he says, he could not properly perform the job. When he told Moyer as much, however, Moyer asked him if he was an “idiot.” Vaughan took issue, telling his union shop steward about Moyer's comment, and the two filed a report with a Boeing human resources representative. The head of the local union then met with Moyer's boss, Dennis Garehan, who kept Vaughan in the same job but reassigned him from Moyer to the supervision of Mark Muldowney (also white). Soon after, Vaughan told Buxton that he was “more optimistic now that he has returned to meaningful work.”

         B. Vaughan's Suspension

         In aircraft manufacturing, Foreign Object Debris (FOD) is any item that is foreign to the part of the aircraft currently under construction. FOD can be a tool, an extra nut, or even a stray piece of paper. Because unaccounted-for FOD can ultimately damage an aircraft and cause it to crash, FOD control is a major and constant concern for Boeing. Boeing therefore requires that its employees, such as Vaughan, complete annual FOD-control training.[5]

         With respect to tools, Boeing uses a “chit” system to prevent FOD problems. A chit is a piece of plastic marked with an employee's identification number. When an employee removes a tool from his toolbox for use on an aircraft, he must leave a chit in its place; when he is done with the tool, he retrieves the chit. Any time the employee leaves the worksite, even for a break, he must remove all his tools and any other FOD from the aircraft, and at the end of his shift, he must return all tools to his toolbox and ensure that he has all his chits. If either a tool or chit is missing, the employee must tell his manager, and the factory will be shut down until the missing item is found.

         Not long after Vaughan had started work under Muldowney (and a month after he was rehired), Muldowney noticed that Vaughan had left FOD on an aircraft while on break. Recognizing that Vaughan was a “new employee” to the V-22 Osprey Department and “unaware of the processes here, ” Muldowney, together with Garehan, told Vaughan about the issue and gave him an informal coaching session on FOD control. Vaughan was told that future violations could result in a corrective action, which, under the first step of Boeing's progressive-discipline regime, usually means human resources gets involved and a written warning is issued.

         A week later, and two days after Vaughan reiterated (this time to Muldowney instead of Moyer) that he needed additional bonding training, Muldowney saw that Vaughan had left tools out on a cart overnight. There is no real dispute that Vaughan did this; what is disputed is why. Vaughan claims that while new employees to an area are typically given a locker to store their tools, he had never been given one, and so he had been leaving his tools on a cart overnight as a matter of course. Vaughan also testified that he observed white employees frequently leaving tools out overnight without facing discipline.[6] Boeing, by contrast, acknowledges the long delay in getting Vaughan a locker, but says this could not have been the reason for Vaughan's noncompliance in this instance, because that very night Vaughan had told Muldowney that he did not have a locker and Muldowney had responded by getting Vaughan both a lock and locker. In any event, Muldowney emailed Raymond Bates, the human resources representative for the V-22 Osprey Department, outlining what had happened, including Vaughan's earlier FOD issue. Because this was a subsequent violation, Muldowney requested “no less than a written warning.”

         As Bates investigated, Vaughan's FOD troubles continued. Two weeks after Muldowney's email, Muldowney discovered that Vaughan had left paper backing on an aircraft. Muldowney approached Vaughan about it and told him to be more careful, and updated Bates via email. Two days later, an employee who shared a toolbox with Vaughan told Muldowney that a sander was missing from the toolbox, but there was no chit in its place. When confronted, Vaughan admitted he had been using the sander, but claimed his chits were at the other end of the building. Muldowney updated Bates with this news as well.

         Finally, on December 18, Boeing issued Vaughan a written warning and a three-day suspension because of his numerous FOD violations. The disciplinary memo specifically cited each of the above violations except the paper-backing incident. Both Muldowney and Vaughan signed the memo, although Vaughan again disputed any reference to leaving his tools out on a cart overnight, claiming he had no place to put them.

         C. Vaughan's Termination

         Vaughan returned to work in early January 2014, [7] his future at Boeing uncertain. Soon after Vaughan got back, Muldowney pointed out that he had made mistakes in attaching certain fuel bag hangers, which required their replacement. Muldowney told Vaughan that he would not pursue discipline but that this sort of workmanship problem could trigger it-and given Vaughan's prior infractions, discipline likely meant termination. Vaughan responded that he had “not been given the chance to succeed” and was “being set up to fail.” After giving Vaughan notice, Muldowney then called Buxton to tell him Vaughan was having “difficulties on the job” and recommend that he meet with Vaughan. When the two met later that day, Buxton noted that Vaughan had “mild anxiety over discipline given him for poor workmanship.”

         Vaughan's problems continued. Less than a week later, Muldowney emailed Bates and Garehan to ask that Vaughan be disciplined because he had worked unauthorized overtime. Because Boeing's governing collective bargaining agreement sets out specific criteria for distributing overtime, employees cannot work overtime without authorization. Muldowney, moreover, had reminded his employees that very week that overtime was given by invitation only. For his part, Vaughan does not dispute any of this, but testified that white employees in his area commonly worked unauthorized overtime (and openly discussed doing so) and were not disciplined.[8] In a now-familiar pattern, shortly after Muldowney approached Vaughan about the overtime issue, Vaughan met with Buxton, telling him he thought ...


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