Massachusetts judges part ways on scope of ADA preemption in skycap tips cases

Travers v. JetBlue Airways Corporation (D. Mass. July 23, 2009).  According to the plaintiff skycaps, JetBlue diverted tip revenue to itself by imposing a $2 fee for each bag checked by a passenger at the curbside.  The skycaps claimed that their compensation, most of which took the form of tips, had decreased substantially because few passengers gave them tips after paying the airline’s $2 curbside check-in fee.

In their amended complaint, the skycaps sought damages and injunctive relief under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Law, the Massachusetts Tips Law and various state common law tort doctrines.  JetBlue moved to dismiss the state statutory and common law claims on the grounds that they were preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1), which provides that “a State . . . may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation under this subpart.”

The court granted JetBlue’s motion.  In its ruling, the court relied on New Hampshire Motor Transport Ass’n v. Rowe, 448 F.3d 66 (1st Cir. (Me.) 2006), aff’d, 128 S.Ct. 989 (2008), for support of the proposition that the ADA preemption analysis must focus “on the effect that the state law has on airline operations,” not on “the state’s purpose for enacting the law.”  The court in Travers held that because a verdict for the plaintiffs on their state law claims would have a significant effect on the “price” of JetBlue’s curbside check-in “service,” such claims were preempted as “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.”

In making his ruling, the judge in Travers disagreed with a decision by another U.S. district judge in Massachusetts, who had ruled in favor of the skycaps on the same ADA preemption issue two years before in a case against a different airline.  In DiFiore v. American Airlines, Inc., 483 F. Supp.2d 121 (D. Mass. 2007), the judge held that the ADA did not preempt the skycaps’ claims, reasoning that the relationship between employee claims and an airline’s “price, route, or service” is “too tenuous to support preemption.”  The judge in Travers disagreed with the judge’s reasoning in DiFiore, ruling instead that a court’s ADA preemption analysis must focus on the effect of the state law on the airline’s prices and services, not on the identity of the particular plaintiff in the case.

Note:  In 2008, a jury in the DiFiore case awarded the skycaps damages exceeding $325,000 on their state statutory and common law claims.

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