Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Northwest terminated plaintiff’s membership in its frequent flyer program. A provision in the frequent flyer agreement gave Northwest sole discretion to determine whether a participant had abused the program. Plaintiff claimed that Northwest breached its contract by revoking his membership without valid cause and violated the duty of good faith and fair dealing because it terminated his membership in a way that contravened his reasonable expectations. The district court dismissed, holding that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 pre-empted the breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that claim “too tenuously connected to airline regulation to trigger” ADA pre-emption. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Act pre-empts a state-law claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing if it seeks to enlarge contractual obligations that the parties voluntarily adopted. The Act prohibits states from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to [an air carrier’s] price, route, or service,” 49 U.S.C. 41713(b)(1). The phrase “other provision having the force and effect of law” includes state common-law rules like the claimed implied covenant. Exempting common-law claims would disserve the Act’s central purpose: to eliminate federal regulation of rates, routes, and services so they could be set by market forces. Northwest’s program connects to “rates” by awarding credits redeemable for tickets and upgrades, thus eliminating or reducing ticket prices. It also connects to “services,” i.e., access to flights and higher service categories. Because the implied covenant claim sought to enlarge contractual agreement, it is pre-empted. Under controlling Minnesota law, parties may not contract out of the implied covenant; when state law does not authorize parties to free themselves from the covenant, a breach of covenant claim is pre-empted. Participants in frequent flyer programs can protect themselves by avoiding airlines with poor reputations and enrolling in more favorable rival programs; the Department of Transportation has authority to investigate complaints about frequent flyer programs. The Court also noted that the plaintiff did not appeal his breach of contract claim. View "Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg" on Justia Law

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The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 provides railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States,” 43 U.S.C. 934. One such right of way, created in 1908, crosses land that the government conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated that the land was granted subject to the right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad relinquished those rights. A successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The government sought a declaration of abandonment and an order quieting its title to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch across the Brandt patent. Brandt argued that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished upon abandonment. The district court quieted title in the government. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The right of way was an easement that was terminated by abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. The Court noted that that the government had argued the opposite position in an earlier case. In that case, the Court found the 1875 Act’s text “wholly inconsistent” with the grant of a fee interest. An easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary. View "Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States" on Justia Law

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Using FOIA requests directed to the South Carolina DMV, attorneys obtained names and addresses, then sent letters to more than 34,000 individuals, seeking clients for a lawsuit against car dealerships for violation of a state law. The letters were headed “ADVERTISING MATERIAL,” explained the lawsuit, and asked recipients to return an enclosed card to participate in the case. Recipients sued the attorneys, alleging violation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA), 18 U.S.C. 2721(b)(4), by obtaining, disclosing, and using personal information from motor vehicle records for bulk solicitation without express consent. The district court dismissed, based on a DPPA exception permitting disclosure of personal information "for use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding," including "investigation in anticipation of litigation." The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. An attorney’s solicitation of clients is not a permissible purpose under the (b)(4) litigation exception. DPPA’s purpose of protecting privacy in motor vehicle records would be substantially undermined by application of the (b)(4) exception to the general ban on disclosure of personal information and ban on release of highly restricted personal information in cases there is any connection between protected information and a potential legal dispute. The Court noted examples of permissible litigation uses: service of process, investigation in anticipation of litigation, and execution or enforcement of judgments and orders. All involve an attorney’s conduct as an officer of the court, not a commercial actor, seeking a business transaction. A contrary reading of (b)(4) could affect interpretation of the (b)(6) exception, which allows an insurer and certain others to obtain DMV information for use in connection with underwriting, and the (b)(10) exception, which permits disclosure and use of personal information in connection with operation of private tollroads. View "Maracich v. Spears" on Justia Law

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The Port of Los Angeles is run by a Board of Harbor Commissioners under a municipal ordinance (the tariff) and leases terminal facilities to operators that load and unload ships. Federally-licensed short-haul drayage trucks move cargo in and out of the Port. In response to concerns over proposed port expansion, the Board implemented a Clean Truck Program that involved a standard “concession agreement,” governing the relationship between the Port and drayage companies. It required a placard on each truck including a phone number and submission a plan listing off-street parking locations. Other requirements relate to financial capacity, truck maintenance, and drivers. The Board amended the tariff to make it a misdemeanor for a terminal operator to grant access to an unregistered drayage truck. An association of drayage companies sued, claiming that the requirements are expressly preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA), 49 U.S.C. 4501(c)(1), and that even if the requirements are valid, the Port may not enforce them by withdrawing a right to operate at the Port. The district court ruled in favor of the Port. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding only the driver-employment provision preempted. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed in part. The FAAAA expressly preempts the placard and parking requirements, which relate to a motor carrier’s price, route, or service with respect to transporting property and “hav[e] the force and effect of law.” The Port exercised classic regulatory authority in forcing terminal operators and, therefore, trucking companies, to alter their conduct by implementing a criminal prohibition punishable by imprisonment. The Port’s proprietary intentions do not control. The Court declined to determine, in a “pre-enforcement posture” whether precedent limits the way the Port can en¬force the financial-capacity and truck-maintenance requirements. View "Am. Trucking Ass'ns., Inc. v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

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The Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) preempts state laws “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier ... with respect to the transportation of property.” 49 U. S. C. 14501(c)(1). Pelkey sued in New Hampshire state court, alleging that Dan’s towing company towed his car from a parking lot without Pelkey’s knowledge, failed to notify him of its plan to auction the car, held an auction despite Pelkey’s notice that he wanted to reclaim the car, and traded the car away without compensating Pelkey. Pelkey alleged Dan’s did not meet the requirements of New Hampshire statutes, chapter 262, which regulates disposal of abandoned vehicles by a “storage company;” violated New Hampshire’s Consumer Protection Act; and violated its duties as a bailee The court granted Dan’s summary judgment, concluding that the FAAAA preempted Pelkey’s claims. The New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed, finding FAAAA preemption inapplicable to claims related to conduct in post-storage disposal, as opposed to conduct concerning “transportation of property,” or a “service.” The Supreme Court affirmed. Section 14501(c)(1) does not preempt state-law claims stemming from the storage and disposal of a towed vehicle. Pelkey’s claims are not related to “transportation of property” nor the “service” of a motor carrier. The words “with respect to the transportation of property” limit the FAAAA’s preemptive scope. Transportation of Pelkey’s car from his landlord’s parking lot was a service that ended months before the conduct on which Pelkey’s claims are based. The New Hampshire prescriptions Pelkey invokes hardly constrain participation in interstate commerce by requiring a motor carrier to offer services not available in the market. Nor do they “freez[e] into place services that carriers might prefer to discontinue in the future.” View "Dan's City Used Cars, Inc. v. Pelkey" on Justia Law

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Lozman’s floating home was a plywood structure with empty bilge space underneath to keep it afloat. He had it towed several times before deciding on a marina owned by the city of Riviera Beach. After various disputes and unsuccessful efforts to evict him from the marina, the city brought an admiralty lawsuit in rem against the home, seeking a lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass. The district court found the floating home to be a “vessel” under the Rules of Construction Act, which defines a “vessel” as including “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water,” 1 U. S. C. 3; concluded that admiralty jurisdiction was proper; and awarded fees and damages. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, noting that the home was “capable” of movement over water despite subjective intent to remain moored indefinitely. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the case was not moot, although the home has been destroyed. Lozman’s floating home is not a “vessel.” The definition of “transportation” must be applied in a practical way; a structure does not fall within its scope unless a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water. But for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water. It had no steering mechanism, had an unraked hull and rectangular bottom 10 inches below water, and had no capacity to generate or store electricity. It lacked self-propulsion, unlike an ordinary houseboat. The Court considered only objective evidence to craft a “workable and consistent” definition that “should offer guidance in a significant number of borderline cases.” View "Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach" on Justia Law

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Claiming that the FAA, DOT, and SSA violated the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a(g)(4)(A), by sharing his records with one another, respondent filed suit alleging that the unlawful disclosure to the DOT of his confidential medical information, including his HIV status, had caused him "humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress." The District Court granted summary judgment against respondent, concluding that respondent could not recover damages because he alleged only mental and emotional harm, not economic loss. Reversing the District Court, the Ninth Circuit concluded that "actual damages" in the Act was not ambiguous and included damages for mental and emotional distress. Applying traditional rules of construction, the Court held that the Act did not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress. Accordingly, the Act did not waive the Government's sovereign immunity from liability for such harms. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings. View "FAA v. Cooper" on Justia Law

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George Corson and his wife sued respondents, claiming injury from Corson's exposure to asbestos in locomotives and locomotive parts distributed by respondents. The Corsons alleged state-law claims of defective design and failure to warn of the dangers posed by asbestos. After Corson died, his wife was substituted as a party. Respondents removed the case to the Federal District Court, which granted respondents summary judgment, ruling that the state-law claims were pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. 20701, et seq. The Third Circuit affirmed. The Court held that petitioners' state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims fell within the field of locomotive equipment regulation pre-empted by the LIA, as that field was defined in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line. R. Co. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals was affirmed. View "Kurns, et al. v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., et al." on Justia Law

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This case concerned the standard of causation applicable in cases arising under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. 51 et seq., which rendered railroads liable for employees' injuries or deaths "resulting in whole or in part from [carrier] negligence." Respondent, a locomotive engineer with petitioner, an interstate railroad, sustained a debilitating hand injury and subsequently filed suit under the FELA. At issue was whether the causation instruction endorsed by the Seventh Circuit was proper in FELA cases where that instruction did not include the term "proximate cause," but did tell the jury defendant's negligence must "pla[y] a part-no matter how small-in bringing about the [plaintiff's] injury." In accord with the text and purpose of the Act, the Court's decision in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., and the uniform view of federal appellate courts, the Court held that the Act did not incorporate "proximate cause" standards developed in nonstatutory common law tort actions. The Court held that the charge proper in FELA cases simply tracked the language Congress employed, informing juries that a defendant railroad caused or contributed to a plaintiff employee's injury if the railroad's negligence played any part in bringing about the injury. Accordingly, the judgment of the Seventh Circuit was affirmed. View "CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride" on Justia Law