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Clifford Press v. United Airlines

May 3, 2012

CLIFFORD PRESS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED AIRLINES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court is Defendant United Airlines, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Because Plaintiff Clifford Press properly stated claims for breach of contract and defamation, and those claims are not preempted, the motion will be denied in part. But because Mr. Press failed to state claims for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the motion will be granted in part.

I. Background

The facts as alleged in Mr. Press's complaint are as follows: On March 27, 2011, Mr. Press flew from Denver to New York on United Airlines. He brought a prepackaged salad onto the flight with him, and after the flight began, he left his seat and went to the plane's rear galley to ask a flight attendant about how to dispose of the salad's packaging. The flight attendant, Sharon Brando, recognized from his voice and appearance that Mr. Press was a white South African. This identification made Ms. Brando, an African American, become aggressive and domineering toward Mr. Press. She demanded that he "show some respect" and told him to return to his seat. Mr. Press responded that he was ready to return to his seat and wanted to know where he might find a trash receptacle. Ms. Brando refused to answer his question, demanding again that he return to his seat. Mr. Press placed the packaging on the floor between himself and Ms. Brando and returned to his seat.

Fifteen minutes later, he was approached by another flight attendant, Gina Marie Algano. Ms. Algano told Mr. Press, "Here's what you're going to do. You're going to go back to the galley, pick up your trash, and put it in the trash can." Mr. Press advised Ms. Algano that he did not want to leave his seat again because he might encounter Ms. Brando. Ms. Algano then informed Mr. Press that if he did not get up and dispose of his trash, she would ensure that he was declared a security threat and taken off the plane by police when they arrived in New York. Mr. Press remained in his seat, and Ms. Algano walked away. She returned with the salad packaging, throwing it under Mr. Press's seat.

Ms. Brando, Ms. Algano, and a third flight attendant, Nelga Luther, individually and jointly requested that the flight's captain declare a "level one security alert" based on Mr. Press's conduct. The captain initially refused, but gave in after repeated entreaties. At least one of the flight attendants asked other passengers on the flight whether they would be able to assist in case of a physical altercation with Mr. Press, describing Mr. Press as "disruptive" or a "security threat."

When the plane arrived in New York, all passengers were instructed to remain in their seats. Several Port Authority police officers boarded the plane and removed Mr. Press. The officers detained and questioned Mr. Press in the boarding area adjoining the arrival gate, in the full view of his fellow passengers now departing the plane and the general public. They released him after thirty minutes and took no further action against him.

On September 8, 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration filed a complaint demanding a penalty against Mr. Press for failure to remain in his seat while the "fasten seatbelt" sign was illuminated, failure to comply with instructions of crew members, and failure to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that states that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duty aboard an aircraft."

Mr. Press filed his complaint against United on December 7, 2011. The complaint alleges civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and defamation. Mr. Press seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

United moved to dismiss on February 7, 2012. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face," Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), meaning enough factual allegations "'to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of'" each necessary element, Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The pleading standard of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 does not require "detailed factual allegations," but "[a] pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or a 'formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1959 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).

Thus, when determining the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must undertake a three-part inquiry. See Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011). The inquiry involves: "(1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000). Under Rule 12(b)(6), a dismissal based on the statute of limitations is appropriate only where the untimeliness of the claim is clear on the face of the complaint. Bethel v. Jendoco Const. Corp., 570 F.2d 1168 (3d Cir. 1978) (citations omitted).

III. Discussion

A. Section 1983

United's motion to dismiss Mr. Press's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 will be granted because United is not a state actor. Section 1983 states that "[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . or any other person . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured."To prevail in an action under § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and (2) that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000); Moore v. Tartler, 986 F.2d 682, 685 (3d Cir. 1993). "Action under color of state law 'requires that one liable under § 1983 have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law." Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dep't, 635 F.3d 606, 609 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Abbott v. Latshaw, 164 F.3d 141, 146 (3d Cir. 1998)). Because United is a private corporation, it does not act under color of state law.

Mr. Press argues that the United employees became state actors by conspiring with the Port Authority, but the complaint fails to plausibly allege a conspiracy. Private citizens act under color of law when they conspire with state officials. Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 27-28 (1980). In order to prove a conspiracy existed, a plaintiff must present "enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest that an agreement was made" Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 178 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Here, Mr. Press has not alleged that the flight attendants made any agreement with the Port Authority. He argues that the "genesis" of the conspiracy occurred when Ms. Algano informed Mr. Press that if he did not dispose of his trash, she would ensure that he was removed from the plane by police. Pl.'s Opp. Brief, 6 (citing Compl. ¶ 15). But this allegation does not set forth a conspiracy between United and the Port Authority--if anything, it indicates an independent plan by Ms. Algano. Mr. Press also points out that the three flight attendants "individually and jointly" asked the captain to declare a security alert. Id. (citing Compl. ¶ 17). But again, this fact does not show any agreement--or even any awareness--by the Port Authority. At best, this demonstrates an agreement between the flight attendants. In fact, Mr. Press even states in his brief that "the United employees conspired among themselves and, employing a customary pattern, imported the Port Authority Police into their conspiracy." Id. at 8. But "in the absence of a conspiracy with the police to violate constitutional rights, a business's summons of a police officer to deal with a possible disturbance does not ...


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