Passenger’s racial discrimination claims based on airline deplaning come up short

Mercer v. Southwest Airlines Co. (N.D. Cal. Sept. 19, 2014).  In his amended complaint, the plaintiff, an African American, alleged that he and fiancée boarded the Southwest LAX-IAH flight with two carry-on bags apiece.  The plaintiff stowed his bags in an overhead compartment and then, “as a gentleman,” proceeded to do the same with one of his fiancée’s bags.  A white Southwest flight attendant told him three times that “he was over the 2 limit per person for carry-on luggage,” and he “politely explained” each time that he was assisting with his fiancée’s bag and thus was not over the limit.

According to the plaintiff, a Southwest supervisor deplaned him several minutes later, and his fiancée followed him off the aircraft.  In the gate area, the Southwest supervisor told the plaintiff that he had been deplaned because the captain “did not want plaintiff on the aircraft as he considered plaintiff to be a security threat.”  The plaintiff and his fiancée were rebooked, and traveled, on a Southwest flight to IAH later that day.

The plaintiff’s amended complaint asserted claims for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of 49 U.S.C. § 40127, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.  Southwest moved to dismiss on the grounds that the amended complaint failed to state an actionable claim.

The court granted Southwest’s motion.  The court’s key ruling was that the Federal Aviation Act preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim.  Noting that the FAA impliedly preempts the field of aviation safety and that 49 U.S.C. § 44902(b), an FAA provision, sets the standard for an airline’s refusal to transport a passenger on safety grounds, the court reasoned that the plaintiff’s negligence claim, which was based on a California statutory standard of care, directly implicated the aviation safety field because, according to the plaintiff himself, safety was the apparent basis for Southwest’s decision to deplane him.  Thus, the court held that the FAA preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because its consideration of that claim would have required that it determine whether he did indeed pose a safety threat in order to determine whether the airline’s conduct was justified.  The court held that the FAA preempted the plaintiff’s emotional distress claim for the same reasons.

The plaintiff had argued that the Southwest supervisor’s explanation regarding his removal from the aircraft on security grounds was merely a pretext for racial discrimination and that he never posed a safety threat.  In response, the court pointed out that, for purposes of FAA preemption, the critical issue was not whether the captain was correct in his belief that the plaintiff was a safety threat but that the plaintiff’s tort claims would have impermissibly required that the court evaluate the safety issue under a state law standard of care.

The court then disposed of the plaintiff’s statutory claims.  It noted that the plaintiff had withdrawn his 42 U.S.C. § 2000a claim, and it held that the plaintiff had no private right of action under 49 U.S.C. § 40127 and that he had failed to adequately state a racial discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 because he had not alleged that he was treated differently than similarly-situated white passengers on the flight.  The court granted the plaintiff leave to amend his Section 1981 claim.


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