In a previous blog entry, the Air Carrier Access Act was discussed in terms of whether it allowed for a private cause of action where an airline violated the regulations that carry out that act. However, that blog entry did not answer two questions. First, assuming a private cause of action for violation of that act is allowed, would you have to exhaust administrative remedies first? Second, assuming a private cause of action is not allowed, could you then pursue a claim under a state law that might apply?
A case that answers both of these questions is Segalman v. Southwest Airlines, 2012 WL 5289308 (E.D. Cal. October 24, 2012). In this case, the plaintiff flew Southwest Airlines several different times. Id. at *1. During each of those times, Southwest Airlines did not comply with the Air Carrier Access Act regulations with respect to stowing wheelchairs. Id. As a result, he was not able to use his wheelchair upon arriving at his destinations. Id.. The plaintiff had cerebral palsy and had to use a specific wheelchair. Id. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, there are very specific regulations dealing with how an airline is supposed to deal with the person’s wheelchair. Id. at *6. Those regulations were not complied with. That caused him considerable distress, physical mental anguish, and considerable inconvenience as he had to get the wheelchair fixed in a variety of different locations. Id. Instead of filing an administrative complaint with the Department of Transportation, which enforces the Air Carrier Access Act, the plaintiff filed suit against Southwest Airlines alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, violation of the California Unruh Act, and violation of the California Disabled Persons Act. Id. at *2. Not surprisingly, in light of our previous blog entry, Southwest Airlines moved to dismiss the Americans with Disabilities Act claim. They also moved to dismiss the state law claims as well arguing that the state law claims were preempted by federal law.
For the reasons mentioned in the other blog entry dealing with this subject, the Eastern District of California dismissed the Americans with Disabilities Act claim saying that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply to this situation. Rather, the applicable law was the Air Carrier Access Act. Id. at *3-5. However, the court went even further when it said that since the federal government had issued extensive regulations implementing this particular statute, that means that the federal government meant to preempt the field with respect to other laws that might apply, certainly with respect to any laws where the federal government had very specific specific applicable regulations (the Air Carrier Access Act has very specific regulations on how wheelchairs must be stowed). Id. at *5-7.
Finally, the private cause of action discussion in this case has an interesting element to it. That is, while the court said that no private cause of action exists, they also said that if somehow a private cause of action did exist, the statutory scheme was such that it required exhaustion of administrative remedies. Id. at *5. In this case, the plaintiff did not exhaust administrative remedies because he never filed a claim with the Department of Transportation. Id.. This discussion of administrative remedies is very interesting because there is nothing in this opinion that suggests that exhaustion of administrative remedies would change the equation with respect to whether a private cause of action exists in the first place.
Preventive tips: If you are plaintiff, you definitely want to file with the Department of Transportation and go through that process. Once that process is complete, you could try filing in federal court. The problem with that approach is that the statute doesn’t contain any indication that you can go to federal court, in much the same way as you would go to federal court under title I of the ADA once administrative remedies are exhausted. That said, once that process is completed, the plaintiff may want to try and argue that the regulations themselves create a private cause of action, which for reasons discussed in the other blog entry would be a tough sell but maybe it’s worth a shot. Also, if a state law deals with the situation and the Air Carrier Access Act regulations do not specifically pertain to the situation at issue, then a plaintiff might argue that violations of the state law occurred and were not preempted by the federal regulations. On the defense side, the argument is pretty simple. That is, the Air Carrier Access Act is the only law that applies with respect to air carriers, airports and persons with disabilities. Further, the Air Carrier Access Act statute does not allow for a private cause of action. Also, the statutory scheme is such that a private cause of action for violating the regulations would not be allowed either. Finally, the defendant would argue that any allegations that state law was violated were preempted by the federal regulations. For good measure, the defendant could argue that a plaintiff would need to exhaust administrative remedies first, just in case the plaintiff did not do that. With respect to the administrative remedies exhaustion, I am not really sure I follow that argument because it simply would not come into play if no private cause of action existed in the first place. Also, by saying administrative remedies should be exhausted first, the implication is that a private cause of action exists after that. In short, it would seem that the defense in a case such as this would have the upper hand absent some congressional enactment making clear that a private cause of action existed.*
*I recently attended the labor and employment convention of the American Bar Association. At that conference, I heard a distinguished panel of attorneys discussing the future of labor and employment law generally. During that discussion, the panelists said that it was their belief that due to budgetary constraints, that it was probably a better use of resources for federal agencies to move in the direction of technical assistance and guidance and leave the litigation to private parties. If that belief is correct, then it would make sense for Congress to move in the direction of authorizing a private cause of action for violation of the Air Carrier Access Act, either generally or where specific regulations are violated. Of course, in such an eventuality, the question of attorneys fees would need to be addressed as well.