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Brown v. United Airlines, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

July 9, 2013

JOSEPH BROWN ET AL., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
UNITED AIRLINES, INC., Defendant, Appellee. BEN MITCHELL ET AL., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
US AIRWAYS, INC., Defendant, Appellee.

APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. William G. Young, U.S. District Judge]

Shannon Liss-Riordan, with whom Hillary Schwab and Lichten & Liss-Riordan, P.C. were on brief, for appellants.

Scott L. Nelson, Adina H. Rosenbaum, and Public Citizen Litigation Group on brief for Public Citizen, Inc., amicus curiae.

Jonathan E. Nuechterlein, with whom Bruce H. Rabinovitz, Daniel T. Deacon, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP were on brief, for appellee United Airlines, Inc.

Robert S. Span and Steinbrecher & Span LLP on brief for Airlines for America, amicus curiae.

Michael McGuinness, with whom Robert Siegel, O'Melveny & Myers LLP, Ellen C. Kearns, Jeffrey M. Rosin, and Constangy, Brooks & Smith LLP were on brief, for appellee U.S. Airways, Inc.

Jeffrey A. Lamken, Andrew M. Bernie, and MoloLamken LLP on brief for Airlines for America, amicus curiae.

Before: Howard, Selya and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

These appeals pose a question of first impression: Can the plaintiffs, skycaps affiliated with two major airlines, maintain common-law actions for unjust enrichment and tortious interference based on the airlines' imposition and retention of baggage-handling fees for curbside service? Concluding, as we do, that the plaintiffs' actions intrude into a no-fly zone demarcated by the preemption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1), we affirm the district court's orders of dismissal.

I. BACKGROUND

These consolidated cases have a convoluted history. For present purposes, however, a simplified account will do.

The cases comprise two putative class actions brought by skycaps — a term of art used to describe "porters who provide curbside service" at airports. DiFiore v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 646 F.3d 81, 82 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 761 (2011). At the times relevant hereto, the skycaps toiled on behalf of air carriers (either defendant U.S. Airways, Inc. or defendant United Airlines, Inc.).

By tradition, skycaps' remuneration depended largely on tips. In the middle of the last decade, however, the defendants, acting independently and at different times, each introduced a $2.00 per bag fee for curbside service for departing passengers at airports. These baggage-handling fees did not inure to the benefit of the skycaps.

Invoking diversity jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2), the plaintiffs brought suit in the federal district court. They asserted that their compensation "decreased dramatically" after the baggage-handling fees were established, "as some passengers thought the $2.00 charge was a mandatory gratuity, and others declined voluntarily to tip in addition to paying the $2.00 charge." Mitchell v. US Airways, Inc., 858 F.Supp.2d 137, 148 (D. Mass. 2012). Relatedly, the plaintiffs faulted the airlines for "not adequately notify[ing] passengers that this charge was not a gratuity." Id.

The plaintiffs made a number of state law claims premised on these averments. We rehearse here only the claims that have continuing relevance: unjust enrichment and tortious interference with advantageous relations.[1]

In the early going, this litigation encountered strong headwinds, fueled by a byzantine series of procedural twists and turns. This history need not concern us, so we fast-forward to the point at which the ADA preemption issue came to the fore. The district court heard oral argument and dismissed the unjust enrichment and tortious interference claims as preempted. See id. at 148-59. These timely appeals ensued.

II. ANALYSIS

The plaintiffs' appeals hinge on the proposition that the ADA does not preempt common-law claims, regardless of the relationship between those claims and an air carrier's prices, routes, or services. The district court rejected this proposition as a matter of statutory construction, and we review its decision de novo. See DiFiore, 646 F.3d at 85; Buck v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 476 F.3d 29, 32 (1st Cir. 2007).

The Supremacy Clause sits at the epicenter of every preemption question. See Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 210-11 (1824). The Clause instructs that federal law "shall be the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. A state law that offends the Supremacy Clause "is a nullity." Mass. Ass'n of Health Maint. Orgs. v. Ruthardt, 194 F.3d 176, 178 (1st Cir. 1999).

Federal preemption of state law may occur either expressly or by implication. Grant's Dairy - Me., LLCv. Comm'r of Me. Dep't of Agric., Food & Rural Res., 232 F.3d 8, 15 (1st Cir. 2000). The fact that the statute at issue here contains a specific preemption clause, 49 U.S.C. ยง 41713(b)(1), streamlines our inquiry. The issue at hand is one of express preemption. But even express preemption is not self-elucidating: it nonetheless falls to the courts to ...


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