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Eighth Circuit Confirms Split in Airline Deregulation Act Pre-emption

2016 Case Notes

December 29, 2016

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has set up a circuit split for the U.S. Supreme Court in Watson v. Air Methods Corp., 834 F.3d 891 (8th Cir. 2016). In Watson, the Eight Circuit affirmed its precedent asserting federal preemption of certain state law claims under the Airline Deregulation Act, while at the same time recognizing a split among the circuits on the issue preemption.

Plaintiff John Watson served as an in-flight paramedic for Air Methods, which provides in-flight medical care for patients requiring emergency air transportation. 834 F.3d at 892. Watson observed what he believed to be numerous violations of the Federal Aviation Regulations by other Air Methods employees.  Id.  Watson reported the violations to Air Methods, and was allegedly terminated as a result of these reports.  Id. 

Watson filed suit in Missouri state court, alleging violation of Missouri common law, which prohibits terminations in violation of public policy.  Id.  Air Methods removed the action to the United States District Court and then moved to dismiss the claim because it was preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1) and the Eighth Circuit’s prior decision of Botz v. Omni Air International, 286 F.3d 488 (8th Cir. 2002). The United States District Court agreed with Air Methods and dismissed the action. Watson appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

Watson argued that Botz should be distinguished based on its facts. In Botz, the plaintiff refused to accept a flight attendant assignment, believing that doing so would violate applicable Federal Aviation Regulations.  286 F.3d at 490. The airline fired Botz following the refusal.  The Botz court, in affirming the dismissal of the state court whistleblower claim, held that a refusal of a work assignment would have a “potentially disruptive effect” on airlines’ regulatory obligations to staff flights.  286 F.3d at 494–95.  Such a disruption could lead to cancellation of flights. Id. The Eighth Circuit concluded that the plain language of the ADA preempted Botz’s claims.  Id. at 498.

Unlike Botz, Watson did not refuse an assignment, and did not commit any acts which would have affected flight schedules.  Rather, Watson reported only post-flight safety violations.  Nevertheless, the Watson court declined to distinguish or overrule Botz. Instead, the Eighth Circuit found that the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, 49 U.S.C. § 42121, provided the sole remedy for federal aviation whistleblower claims.  And because Botz also contained a whistleblower claim, the Eighth Circuit declined to distinguish it on the facts.

Turning to other circuits, the Watson court reviewed opinions from the Third, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits.  Each of those cases decided state law claims based on employment terminations for post-flight reports that allegedly did not have the potential to interrupt service.  And each of those circuits declined to follow Botz on the grounds that the post-flight complaints did not relate to the carrier’s service.  The Third and Eleventh Circuits specifically found that Botz “went too far in expanding ADA preemption”.   

Assuming the Eighth Circuit does not reverse this case and overrule Botz en banc, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to consider whether the ADA’s preemption is broad enough to prohibit state law claims arising out of terminations for reports of post-flight safety violation, and resolve the split among the circuits.

Bruce Wallace practices with Nexsen Pruet’s business and consumer litigation group in Charleston. He represents a variety of banking and financial institutions in real estate litigation, commercial litigation, and mortgage foreclosures. He also represents insurers and corporate clients in bad faith and coverage issues, professional liability, business litigation (including disputes involving partnerships, limited liability companies, and closely held companies), and probate litigation matters (including trusts and estates).