Airline Industry Legal Alert: Ninth Circuit Finds FAA Preempts Safety-Related Wrongful Termination Claim

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Executive Summary:  The Ninth Circuit has held that the Federal Aviation Act (FAA) preempts state law wrongful termination claims where their resolution would require "the factfinder to intrude upon the federally occupied field of aviation safety by deciding questions of pilot medical standards and qualifications." Ventress v. Japan Air Lines, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 5821 (9th Cir. Mar. 28, 2014).

Background:

Martin Ventress worked as a flight engineer for Japan Air Lines (JAL). He claimed that JAL retaliated against him for raising safety concerns regarding the medical fitness of a fellow pilot to operate an aircraft. Specifically, Ventress claimed that JAL subjected him to unnecessary psychiatric evaluations and prevented him from working because he had raised those safety concerns and had submitted safety reports to several federal agencies. Ventress sued the airline, claiming this conduct violated California's whistle-blower statute and resulted in his constructive termination in violation of public policies expressed in another California statute and in AIR21, the federal aviation safety whistle-blower statute.

The Ninth Circuit's Decision:

Ventress's claims were before the Ninth Circuit for the third time. The court previously had held that the claims were not preempted by either the Friendship, Commerce and Navigation Treaty or the Airline Deregulation Act. It now addressed whether they were preempted by the FAA.

The court noted that FAA preemption, if any, of state law claims seeking to impose tort liability for unlawful retaliation or constructive termination must be implied since the Act does not expressly preempt such claims. The court analyzed whether Ventress's claims were subject to field preemption, which applies either where there is a federal regulatory framework so pervasive that a state could not supplement it, or where the federal interest is so dominant that it is assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject. The court held that Ventress's claims related to the issue of pilot qualifications and medical standards, and thus were preempted. It reached this conclusion for two reasons:  "the pervasiveness of federal safety regulations for pilots and the congressional goal of a uniform system of aviation safety." Because the FAA occupied the field with respect to pilot qualifications (including medical fitness), federal law foreclosed the claims, which were "little more than backdoor challenges to JAL's safety-related decisions." The court also found that permitting the factfinder to rule on questions of pilot qualification and medical fitness would "impinge on Congress's goal of ensuring ‘a single, uniform system for regulating aviation safety.'"  Allowing indirect challenges to aviation safety decisions under the guise of a state whistle-blower action would interfere with the FAA's "authority to serve as the principal arbiter of aviation safety," and would risk "creating a fragmented patchwork of aviation safety standards under state law."  

The court noted that its ruling was not intended to suggest that the FAA preempts all retaliation and constructive termination claims brought under California law, as Congress "has not occupied the field of employment law in the aviation context." However, the FAA does preempt those state law claims that would "encroach upon, supplement, or alter the federally occupied field of aviation safety and present an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress's legislative goal to create a single, uniform system of regulating that field."

Employers' Bottom Line:

Airline safety-related claims have been on the rise, and it is not unusual for employees to file state law claims in this area in lieu of (or in addition to) an AIR21 claim. Ventress provides a useful framework for arguing that such claims should be dismissed, at least as far as they relate to conduct that is the subject of pervasive federal regulation.

 

Topics:  Airlines, Employer Liability Issues, FAA, Termination

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Civil Rights Updates, Conflict of Laws Updates, Labor & Employment Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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