Last month, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision in Vesey v. Envoy Air, Inc., which ruled against an airline agent claiming she was harassed based on her race and fired in retaliation for reporting the harassment. To support her claims, the plaintiff, Ms. Ciara Vesey, pointed to a series of workplace-related complaints. She told Envoy’s human resources department that her superiors, Ms. McMurray and Ms. White, committed favoritism and were biased against her. In addition, Vesey claimed after she reported that her supervisors, McMurray and White, harassed and retaliated against her. Vesey also alleged that another employee, Mr. Masengarb, directed racist remarks towards her.
Vesey also asserted in her appeal deposition evidence not considered by the lower court where White allegedly pressured another employee into filing complaints against Vesey. Envoy responded to Vesey’s complaints and found most of her accusations unfounded. However, they did fire Masengarb for his racist comments towards Vesey.
Vesey’s behavior during her employment raised concerns with the airline, which led to an internal investigation. Part of the lead-up to the inquiry included the uncontested fact that Vesey crashed a jet bridge into an airplane. The investigation also found that Vesey used her access as an agent to manipulate the travel voucher system. She booked flights, never intending to take them, then logged into the booking system minutes before takeoff to collect $500 travel vouchers in exchange for postponing her flight. Then she would cancel the original flight and keep the voucher. Based on its findings, the investigation recommended that Envoy terminate Vesey because of her fraudulent activities. Citing retaliation, Vesey disagreed with the investigation’s findings.
Agreeing with the lower court, the 7th Circuit found that Envoy properly terminated Vesey. The Court found her complaint of racial harassment unconvincing since Envoy promptly investigated and fired an employee of his racist remarks against Vesey. The Court was also unmoved by Vesey’s argument that she was fired in retaliation. On that claim, she relied on a “cat’s paw” theory that claimed her superiors, McMurray and White, used the internal Envoy investigators to discriminate against her. The term “cat’s paw” refers to an idiom in which someone is used by another person to achieve the user’s end. This theory failed because the Court found that even if Vesey’s superiors harbored some bias towards her, the investigation turned up legitimate reasons to fire Vesey unrelated to any racial animus White and McMurray had against her.
The investigators based their conclusions on Vesey’s travel history and activities while employed. The Court opined that Vesey offered no evidence that her termination resulted from anything other than her fraudulent use of travel benefits. This elaborate scheme against her employer was evidence of her dishonest conduct, irrespective of how other employees felt about her. The Court concluded that “[no] evidence offered by Vesey creates a genuine dispute that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Vesey was terminated for any reason other than her abuse of travel benefits.”