Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Northwest terminated plaintiff’s membership in its frequent flyer program. A provision in the frequent flyer agreement gave Northwest sole discretion to determine whether a participant had abused the program. Plaintiff claimed that Northwest breached its contract by revoking his membership without valid cause and violated the duty of good faith and fair dealing because it terminated his membership in a way that contravened his reasonable expectations. The district court dismissed, holding that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 pre-empted the breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that claim “too tenuously connected to airline regulation to trigger” ADA pre-emption. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Act pre-empts a state-law claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing if it seeks to enlarge contractual obligations that the parties voluntarily adopted. The Act prohibits states from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to [an air carrier’s] price, route, or service,” 49 U.S.C. 41713(b)(1). The phrase “other provision having the force and effect of law” includes state common-law rules like the claimed implied covenant. Exempting common-law claims would disserve the Act’s central purpose: to eliminate federal regulation of rates, routes, and services so they could be set by market forces. Northwest’s program connects to “rates” by awarding credits redeemable for tickets and upgrades, thus eliminating or reducing ticket prices. It also connects to “services,” i.e., access to flights and higher service categories. Because the implied covenant claim sought to enlarge contractual agreement, it is pre-empted. Under controlling Minnesota law, parties may not contract out of the implied covenant; when state law does not authorize parties to free themselves from the covenant, a breach of covenant claim is pre-empted. Participants in frequent flyer programs can protect themselves by avoiding airlines with poor reputations and enrolling in more favorable rival programs; the Department of Transportation has authority to investigate complaints about frequent flyer programs. The Court also noted that the plaintiff did not appeal his breach of contract claim. View "Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg" on Justia Law

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After Air Wisconsin stopped flying aircraft that Hoeper was certified to fly, Hoeper failed three attempts to gain new certification. Air Wisconsin gave him one final chance. He performed poorly during required training and responded angrily, tossing his headset, using profanity, and making accusations against the instructor. Airline officials discussed the outburst, Hoeper’s impending termination; the history of assaults by disgruntled employees; and the chance that Hoeper, a Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO), permitted “to carry a firearm while engaged in providing air transportation,” 49 U.S.C. 44921(f)(1) might be armed. An airline executive notified the TSA that Hoeper “was an FFDO who may be armed,” that the airline was “concerned about his mental stability and the whereabouts of his firearm,” and that an “[u]nstable pilot in [the] FFDO program was terminated today.” The TSA removed Hoeper (returning home from training) from his plane, searched him, and questioned him about the location of his gun. Hoeper sued for defamation. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), 49 U.S.C. 44941(a), provides airlines and employees immunity for reporting suspicious behavior except where such disclosure is “made with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading” or “made with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.” The jury found for Hoeper. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. ATSA immunity, patterned after the Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” standard, may not be denied to materially true statements, even if made recklessly; a falsehood cannot be material absent a substantial likelihood that a reasonable security officer would consider it important in determining a response. Any falsehoods in the statement to the TSA were not material. A reasonable TSA officer, knowing that Hoeper was an FFDO, upset about losing his job, would have wanted to investigate whether he was armed. While Hoeper had not actually been fired at that time, everyone knew that termination was imminent. It would be inconsistent with the ATSA’s text and purpose to expose Air Wisconsin to liability because the manager who placed the call could have chosen a slightly better phrase to articulate the airline’s concern. View "Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper" on Justia Law

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Claiming that the FAA, DOT, and SSA violated the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a(g)(4)(A), by sharing his records with one another, respondent filed suit alleging that the unlawful disclosure to the DOT of his confidential medical information, including his HIV status, had caused him "humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress." The District Court granted summary judgment against respondent, concluding that respondent could not recover damages because he alleged only mental and emotional harm, not economic loss. Reversing the District Court, the Ninth Circuit concluded that "actual damages" in the Act was not ambiguous and included damages for mental and emotional distress. Applying traditional rules of construction, the Court held that the Act did not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress. Accordingly, the Act did not waive the Government's sovereign immunity from liability for such harms. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings. View "FAA v. Cooper" on Justia Law