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Watson v. Air Methods Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 24, 2016

John A. Watson, V, Plaintiff- Appellant,
Air Methods Corporation, Defendant-Appellee.

          Submitted: January 14, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before WOLLMAN, MELLOY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         John Watson sued his former employer, Air Methods Corporation, in Missouri state court for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Air Methods removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss based on the preemption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act ("ADA"), 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1). The district court, [1] relying on our decision in Botz v. Omni Air International, 286 F.3d 488 (8th Cir. 2002), dismissed the complaint, and Watson appeals. Although three circuits have disagreed with Botz in relevant part, we agree with the district court that circuit precedent requires the dismissal of Watson's complaint.

         Air Methods operates flights and provides in-flight medical care for patients who require emergency air transportation to hospitals. The company maintains a fleet of 450 aircraft and qualifies as an "air carrier" for purposes of federal aviation regulations. 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(2).

         From July 2013 until May 2014, Watson worked as a flight paramedic for Air Methods. Watson claims that during his employment with Air Methods, he observed numerous violations of federal airline safety regulations. These included a pilot making a cell-phone videos during flight, members of a medical crew text messaging during critical phases of flight, a pilot attempting to take off in unsafe conditions, and another pilot making unnecessary "run-on landings." Watson reported these alleged violations to Air Methods' corporate office. He asserts that the company responded by suspending him and later terminating his employment.

         In August 2014, Watson sued Air Methods in Missouri state court for the common-law tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Under Missouri common law, an employer may not terminate an employee "(1) for refusing to violate the law or any well-established and clear mandate of public policy . . . or (2) for reporting wrongdoing or violations of law to superiors or public authorities." Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Inst., P.C., 304 S.W.3d 81, 92 (Mo. 2010). Air Methods removed the case to federal court, invoking diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and then moved to dismiss the complaint based on Botz. The district court granted the motion, concluding that the ADA, as interpreted in Botz, pre-empts Watson's wrongful discharge claim. Whether Watson's claim is pre-empted by the ADA is a question of law that we review de novo. Kutten v. Bank of Am., N.A., 530 F.3d 669, 670 (8th Cir. 2008).

         In 1978, Congress passed the ADA "to encourage, develop, and attain an air transportation system which relies on competitive market forces to determine the quality, variety, and price of air services." Pub. L. No. 95-504, 92 Stat. 1705, 1705 (1978). Prior to the ADA, the Civil Aeronautics Board possessed broad power to regulate the interstate airline industry, including the authority to prescribe routes and fares. Federal Aviation Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-726, tit. IV, 72 Stat. 731, 754-71 (1958). The ADA largely deregulated domestic air transportation and provided for the eventual termination of the Civil Aeronautics Board. 92 Stat. at 1744-54.

         "To ensure that the States would not undo federal deregulation with regulation of their own, " Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 378-79 (1992), the ADA contains an express pre-emption clause, providing in relevant part:

[A] State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of at least 2 States 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.

49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1) (emphasis added). This section has a "broad pre-emptive purpose, " precluding state laws "having a connection with or reference to airline 'rates, routes, or services.'" Morales, 504 U.S. at 383-84. The ADA pre-empts both state laws "specifically addressed to the airline industry" and generally applicable laws that indirectly relate to air carriers' rates, routes, or services. Id. at 386.

         In Botz, we construed the effect of the ADA pre-emption clause on state whistleblower-protection laws. There, a flight attendant refused to work both legs of an Alaska-to-Japan round trip because she believed the assignment violated a federal regulation concerning cabin crewmembers' working hours. Botz, 286 F.3d at 490 (citing 14 C.F.R. § 121.467 (2001)). She also reported to the airline her belief that the refused assignment, and a comparable assignment six months earlier, violated the regulation. Id. The airline fired the flight attendant for insubordination and refusing to accept an assignment, and she sued under the Minnesota whistleblower-protection statute. Id. at 490-91. The Minnesota statute prohibited an employer from firing an employee who reports in good faith a suspected violation of federal or state law or "refuses an employer's order to perform an action that the employee has an objective basis in fact to believe violates any state or federal law." Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subds. 1(1), (3).

         In concluding that the Minnesota statute "related to . . . service of an air carrier" within the meaning of § 41713(b)(1), this court focused first on the potentially disruptive effect of even a single crewmember refusing a work assignment. Botz, 286 F.3d at 494-95. Federal airline regulations set minimum staffing requirements for all commercial flights, so a crewmember's refusal to fly usually will force an airline either to find a last-minute replacement or to cancel the flight. Id. at 494. We observed that:

[r]eplacing a flight attendant even with a few days notice might prove problematic or even impossible . . . for a small air carrier with relatively few flight attendants. For any size carrier, a significant likelihood exists that the carrier will have to cancel the flight in order ...

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