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Adams v. U.S. Airways Group, Inc.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

October 18, 2013

SHARNAE ADAMS, ET AL., Plaintiffs,



Plaintiffs, passengers on a U.S. Airways flight to Orlando, have alleged that they were removed from the flight based upon their race. Plaintiffs have brought claims against Defendants, U.S. Airways Group, Inc. and U.S. Airways, Inc. (collectively “US Airways”), for race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count I, “Discrimination In The Making and Enforcement of Contract”) and negligence (Count II, “Negligent Screening, Hiring, Training, Supervising, Disciplining and/or Retaining” and Count III, “Negligent Breach of Duty of Common Carrier”).

Presently before the Court is Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, which raises issues regarding preemption and pleading sufficiency. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


Based upon the averments in Plaintiffs’ first amended complaint, the pertinent facts, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, are as follows:

On July 5, 2010, Plaintiffs boarded a U.S. Airways flight from Philadelphia to Orlando for a family vacation to Disney World. The traveling party consisted of four adults and seven children. Plaintiffs believe that they were the only African Americans aboard the flight. (First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1–11, 17–19, 36.)[1]

Once Plaintiffs were seated, they fastened their seatbelts with the exception of Malaki Adams, who has Down syndrome and was a toddler at the time. When his mother, Sharnae Adams, could not buckle the seatbelt, she pressed the overhead button to call for a flight attendant. When no one arrived to assist her, Adams moved her son to a seat across the aisle. (Id. ¶¶ 20–24.)

It is alleged that at this point, an off-duty U.S. Airways flight attendant flying on a “buddy pass” or “employment pass” became involved. In the altercation that followed, the off-duty attendant claimed to be a United States Air Marshal, and told Sharnae Adams that she was violating the law. Before gathering with the other flight attendants, the off-duty attendant allegedly called Sharnae Adams a “black bitch” and gave her the middle finger. Plaintiff Tyrone Mitchell was seated near the flight attendants and overheard them say that “the black people” were causing trouble on the plane. Plaintiffs allege that this statement was also made to the aircraft’s captain. (Id. ¶¶ 25–32.)

The plane, which had apparently left the boarding gate, subsequently taxied back to the terminal where Plaintiffs were removed from the plane. At some point during this process, an unidentified U.S. Airways employee allegedly referred to the African-American Plaintiffs collectively as “you people, ” and the captain warned Plaintiffs to “keep their mouths shut” or they would be removed from another flight. Back at the terminal, a manager for U.S. Airways put Plaintiffs on a later flight to Orlando and as a result, Plaintiffs missed the first day of their vacation. (Id. ¶¶ 33–35, 37–38, 41–45.)

Plaintiffs commenced this action in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on July 5, 2012, and Defendants removed the case to this Court on October 1, 2012. Plaintiffs subsequently filed their First Amended Complaint on November 8, 2012 and on November 26, 2012, Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss. The matter is now fully briefed and ready for disposition.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits a court to dismiss all or part of an action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must accept the facts pled in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2000). The court may dismiss a complaint or claim only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984). However, a plaintiff must provide more than a formulaic recitation of a claim’s elements that amounts to mere labels and conclusions. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The complaint’s “factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

To determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, a court must take the following three steps: (1) the court must “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim”; (2) the court should identify allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth”; and (3) “where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.” Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 221 (3d Cir. 2011) (citations omitted).


A. State Law Negligence Claims

Defendants first challenge Plaintiffs’ state law negligence claims, alleged in Counts II and III. Count Two, styled as "Negligent Screening, Hiring, Training, Supervising, Disciplining and Retaining" pertains to U.S. Airways alleged negligent staff training regarding seat-belting and staff use of a "buddy pass." Count Three, styled as "Negligence Breach of Duty of Common Carrier, " generally alleges that U.S. Airways was negligent in removing Plaintiffs from the plane and in handling seatbelt issues.

Defendants argue that part of these claims are preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1) (the “Deregulation Act”).[2] Defendants also contend that Plaintiffs have failed to adequately state their claims. (Defs.’ Br. 4, 7.) We address each argument in turn.

1. Deregulation Act Preemption

The Airline Deregulation Act was enacted to promote “maximum reliance” on market forces by reducing airline regulation. Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 378 (1992). To prevent states from frustrating this purpose, Congress included an express preemption provision, which provides that a state may not enact or enforce any “law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.”[3] 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1). The United States Supreme Court has considered the scope of this provision on three separate occasions.

First, in Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., the Court determined that the Deregulation Act has a “broad pre-emptive purpose, ” superseding state laws that have “a connection with or reference to” the rates, routes, or services of an airline. 504 U.S. at 384. Following this standard, the Court found that state guidelines concerning the way airlines advertise their fares are preempted. Id. at 391. While it did not directly address tort actions, the Court noted that some state laws may have “too tenuous, remote, or peripheral” a connection to the price, route or service of an airline to have a preemptive effect. Id. at 390.

The Court again considered preemption under the Deregulation Act in the context of a frequent flyer contract dispute in American Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens, 513 U.S. 219, 228 (1995). There, the Court held that the Deregulation Act preempted a state consumer fraud claim because it directly related to the “marketing mechanisms appropriate to the furnishing of air transportation services.” Id. However, the Court reasoned that state actions to enforce contracts were not preempted because they were the result of voluntary private agreements, not state action. Id.

After Congress employed the language of the Deregulation Act to deregulate the trucking industry, the Supreme Court again interpreted 49 U.S.C. § 41713. See Rowe v. N.H. Motor Transp. Ass’n, 552 U.S. 364, 370 (2008) (noting that when Congress purposefully uses language from an existing statute, it also imports the judicial interpretation of that language). Noting that the trucking statute copied the preemption language of the Deregulation Act, the Court looked to Morales for guidance and held:

(1) that [s]tate enforcement actions having a connection with, or reference to carrier rates, routes, or services are pre-empted; (2) that such pre-emption may occur even if a state law’s effect on rates, routes or services is only indirect; (3) that, in respect to preemption, it makes no difference whether a state law is consistent or inconsistent with federal regulation; and (4) that pre-emption occurs at least where state laws have a significant impact related to Congress’ deregulatory and pre-emption-related objectives. . . . Finally, Morales said that federal law might not pre-empt state laws that affect fares in only a tenuous, remote, or peripheral . . . manner.

Id. at 370–71 (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis omitted).

Applying this standard to the preemption language of the trucking statute, the Court held that federal law preempted a Maine statute requiring tobacco retailers, when shipping tobacco, to employ a transport carrier that ...

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