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Regner v. Northwest Airlines

November 05, 2002

THOMAS A. REGNER, APPELLANT,
v.
NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., RESPONDENT.



Hennepin County District Court File No. 9817414

Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Hudson, Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

A whistleblower claim brought under Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(a), and based on an employee's report of a violation or suspected violation of a Federal Aviation Administration safety regulation is preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Peterson, Judge

Affirmed

Concurring specially, Anderson, Judge

OPINION

Appellant Thomas A. Regner, an airline mechanic employed by respondent Northwest Airlines, Inc., was fired after he filed reports of alleged safety violations with the Federal Aviation Administration. Regner sued under the Whistleblower Act, Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(a), contending that he was fired for making the reports. In this appeal from a summary judgment for Northwest, Regner challenges the district court's conclusion that under the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41713, Congress intended to preempt state whistleblower claims when an employee reports a violation or suspected violation of a Federal Aviation Administration safety regulation. We affirm.

FACTS

Northwest hired Regner as an aircraft mechanic in August 1989 and promoted him to the position of crew chief in 1996. As a crew chief, Regner was responsible for assigning maintenance and repair work to crew members and making sure that the maintenance and repair work and required paperwork were properly completed.

Under federal safety regulations, an aircraft used to carry passengers must have an airworthiness certificate in effect. 49 U.S.C. § 44711(a)(1). When a non-routine repair was required on a Northwest aircraft, a mechanic or crew chief wrote up a card stating what work was required. Before the aircraft could be returned to service, the repair either had to be completed or, if the repair was not related to airworthiness, it could be deferred. Completion or deferral of a repair was indicated on the card.

Federal aviation regulations also require aircraft mechanics to report safety violations to the Federal Aviation Administration. On five occasions between March and April 1998, Regner reported possible safety violations by Northwest to the Federal Aviation Administration. A factual dispute exists regarding whether Regner made the reports in good faith or as part of an orchestrated work slowdown. Northwest discharged Regner from employment on May 5, 1998, and Regner brought this action claiming that he was fired for reporting the safety violations. The district court concluded that Regner's claim is preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) and granted summary judgment for Northwest.

ISSUE

Is Regner's whistleblower claim brought under Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(a) preempted by the ADA?

ANALYSIS

"Whether a claim is preempted is a question of congressional intent that is 'at bottom' a legal question of statutory construction." Leonard v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 605 N.W.2d 425, 428 (Minn. App. 2000). Statutory construction is subject to de novo review. Metropolitan Sports ...


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