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Corbin v. Southwest Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

August 9, 2019

TRACY CORBIN, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND OPINION SETTING OUT FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

          LEE H. ROSENTHAL CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Ms. Tracy Corbin sued Southwest Airlines, Inc. in September 2017, asserting discrimination, retaliation, and reemployment-denial claims under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301 et seq. (Docket Entry No. 1). Ms. Corbin, a Southwest pilot and former Air Force Reserve officer, alleges that Southwest failed to promptly reemploy her after she injured her back on military leave in April 2007. Ms. Corbin alleges that in May or June 2007, she made four requests to Southwest for reemployment in a nonflying position while she recovered, but that Southwest denied those requests. In January 2008, Ms. Corbin was medically cleared to fly as a pilot.

         Ms. Corbin alleges that she should have been reemployed in a temporary nonflying position for roughly the last five or six months of 2007. Southwest argues that Ms. Corbin did not ask for reemployment until December 2007, and then in a flying position. Southwest argues that because Ms. Corbin waited over 10 years to file suit after she allegedly made the requests for temporary reemployment in a nonflying position, the court should bar her claims under laches.

         Laches is an equitable affirmative defense that requires the defendant to show that: the plaintiff unreasonably delayed bringing a claim; the delay was inexcusable; and the delay materially prejudiced the defendant. See Retractable Techs., Inc. v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 842 F.3d 883, 900 (5th Cir. 2016). In October 2018, the court granted summary judgment to Southwest on Ms. Corbin's discrimination and retaliation claims. (Docket Entry No. 44 at 34-37). The court also found that Ms. Corbin unreasonably delayed bringing this lawsuit for over 10 years after her claims accrued, and that the delay was inexcusable. (Id. at 24-25). On August 6, 2019, with the parties' agreement, the court held a bench trial on whether Ms. Corbin's delay materially prejudiced Southwest's ability to present a defense. (Docket Entry No. 105).

         Based on a careful review of the pleadings, record, applicable law, and the arguments of counsel, the court finds and concludes that Ms. Corbin's delay in bringing this lawsuit materially prejudiced Southwest's ability to defend against her claims. The court also finds and concludes the delay also materially prejudiced Southwest by inflating Ms. Corbin's damages. Laches bars Ms. Corbin's remaining claims and, as a result, her complaint is dismissed, with prejudice. Final judgment is separately entered. The reasons are set out below.

         I. Background

         The parties agree on the following facts. Ms. Corbin has worked as a pilot for Southwest since July 2002. (Docket Entry No. 53 at 2, 5). She is based in Houston and still works for Southwest. Ms. Corbin was also an Air Force Reserve officer from 2002 until 2012, when she left the military with an honorable discharge. Ms. Corbin's Reserve duty required her to occasionally take leave from Southwest to complete her military service obligations at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.

         On March 26, 2007, Ms. Corbin went on military leave for Reserve duty. (Id. at 9). Around April 1, 2007, Ms. Corbin injured her back while serving with her Reserve unit. (Id.). In May 2007, neurosurgeons diagnosed Ms. Corbin as 100% disabled and instructed her to remain “off work” until July 17, 2007. (Id.). From June 11 to June 21, 2007, Ms. Corbin reported to her military unit at Columbus Air Force Base, and she was paid by the military. (Id. at 10). On July 18, 2007, Ms. Corbin had back surgery. (Id.). In December 2007, Ms. Corbin's neurosurgeon gave her a return-to-work note authorizing her to fly on January 1, 2008. (Id.). On January 4, 2008, Ms. Corbin returned to Southwest's active pilot roster. (Id.).

         II. Findings of Fact

         This case turns on whether, in May or June 2007, Ms. Corbin asked Southwest for temporary reemployment in a nonflying position. Ms. Corbin alleges that she made four oral requests for reemployment to Mr. William Kass, her Southwest supervisor. Ms. Corbin alleges that she asked only Mr. Kass for reemployment, and that the requests were made over the phone and not in writing. (Id.; Docket Entry No. 23 at 4).

         Mr. Kass testified by video deposition on June 7, 2019. (Docket Entry No. 96-1 at 1). In 2007, Mr. Kass was Southwest's chief pilot in Houston. (Id. at 3). He supervised over 800 Southwest pilots and was responsible for “their care and wellbeing.” (Id.). Mr. Kass addressed pilot needs and “issue[s] with their flying abilities.” (Id.). Pilots would call Mr. Kass to take sick leave, military leave, or vacation days. Mr. Kass's office would then create a “pull sheet, ” an internal document listing the reason why the pilot could not fly. (Id.). Southwest would change the pilot schedule based on the pull-sheet entry. (Id.). Three assistant chief pilots and three executive assistants worked for Mr. Kass by taking pilot calls and filling out pull sheets. (Id. at 7). The pull sheets do not, however, reflect or include requests for temporary reemployment to a nonflying position.

         Mr. Kass testified that in 2011, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, resulting in short- and long-term memory loss. (Id. at 2). The car accident had a greater impact on Mr. Kass's short-term memory, but his long-term memory “has [also] been affected.” (Id.). In addition to having difficulty recalling information, Mr. Kass has experienced dizziness, loss of balance, and depression because of the accident, which prevented him from traveling to testify. (Id.). Mr. Kass worked as a contract negotiator for Southwest until 2016, when he went on long-term medical leave. (Id. at 3). He is currently on a long-term medical leave from the company and is not expected to return to work. (Id. at 2-3).

         Mr. Kass testified that he does not recall Ms. Corbin asking him for reemployment in a nonflying position in May or June 2017. (See Id. at 3). He could not say whether Ms. Corbin had or had not made the requests, instead testifying that his injury and the passage of 12 years made him unable to recall whether he talked to Ms. Corbin at all between April 2007 and December 2007. (See Id. at 6).

         On cross-examination, Ms. Corbin's counsel asked Mr. Kass hypothetical questions about whether, in 2007, he would have remembered a pilot calling him. Mr. Kass testified that it would be difficult to remember any particular request after 12 years: “I really-it's hard-I challenge anybody in this room to remember conversations they had . . . 12 years ago.” (Id.). Mr. Kass testified that he supervised over 800 pilots. (Id.). But Mr. Kass also testified that a request submitted by a pilot injured in military Reserve or other duty for temporary reemployment in a nonflying position would be unusual, and that he did not recall ever “fac[ing] that situation.” (Id. at 7). That raises a plausible inference that if Ms. Corbin had made the requests she alleges, Mr. Kass would have recalled the requests because ...


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