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Watson v. Air Methods Corporation

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 31, 2017

John A. Watson, V, Plaintiff- Appellant,
v.
Air Methods Corporation, Defendant-Appellee.

          Submitted: January 10, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before RILEY, Chief Judge, [1] WOLLMAN, LOKEN, MELLOY, SMITH, COLLOTON, GRUENDER, BENTON, SHEPHERD, and KELLY, Circuit Judges, En Banc.

          COLLOTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         John Watson sued his former employer, Air Methods Corporation, in Missouri state court, alleging a common-law claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Watson alleged that he was a "whistleblower" who disclosed safety violations at the company, and that Air Methods retaliated against him by terminating his employment. Air Methods removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss based on the pre-emption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act ("ADA"), 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1). The district court, relying on our decision in Botz v. Omni Air International, 286 F.3d 488 (8th Cir. 2002), dismissed the complaint, and Watson appeals. We now hold that the ADA does not expressly pre-empt Watson's state-law wrongful-discharge claims involving post hoc reporting of alleged violations of air-safety regulations.

         I.

         Air Methods operates flights and provides in-flight medical care for patients who require emergency air transportation to hospitals. The company maintains a fleet of 450 aircraft and qualifies as an "air carrier" for purposes of federal aviation regulations. 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(2).

         From July 2013 until May 2014, Watson worked as a flight paramedic for Air Methods. Watson claims that during his employment with Air Methods, he observed numerous violations of federal aviation safety regulations. These included a pilot making cell-phone videos during flight, members of a medical crew text messaging during critical phases of flight, a pilot attempting to take off despite accumulation of frost and ice on the aircraft, and another pilot making unnecessary "run-on landings." Watson reported these alleged violations to Air Methods's corporate office. He asserts that the company responded by suspending him and later terminating his employment.

         In August 2014, Watson sued Air Methods in Missouri state court for the common-law tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Under Missouri common law, an employer may not terminate an employee "for reporting wrongdoing or violations of law to superiors or public authorities." Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Inst., P.C., 304 S.W.3d 81, 92 (Mo. 2010). Air Methods removed the case to federal court, invoking jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

         Air Methods then moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the ADA expressly pre-empted Watson's wrongful discharge claim. The district court granted the motion, concluding that this court's decision in Botz controlled the issue. On appeal, a panel of this court likewise concluded that the case was controlled by Botz and affirmed. Watson v. Air Methods Corp., 834 F.3d 891 (8th Cir. 2016) (per curiam). We then granted Watson's petition for rehearing en banc to consider whether Botz should be reconsidered in relevant part. Whether Watson's claim is expressly pre-empted by the ADA is a question of law that we review de novo. Kutten v. Bank of Am., N.A., 530 F.3d 669, 670 (8th Cir. 2008).

         II.

         In 1978, Congress passed the ADA "to encourage, develop, and attain an air transportation system which relies on competitive market forces to determine the quality, variety, and price of air services." Pub. L. No. 95-504, 92 Stat. 1705, 1705 (1978). Before the ADA, the Civil Aeronautics Board possessed broad power to regulate the interstate airline industry, including the authority to prescribe routes and fares. Federal Aviation Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-726, tit. IV, 72 Stat. 731, 754-71 (1958). The ADA largely deregulated domestic air transportation and provided for the eventual termination of the Civil Aeronautics Board. 92 Stat. at 1744-54.

         "To ensure that the States would not undo federal deregulation with regulation of their own, " Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 378 (1992), the ADA contains an express pre-emption clause, providing in relevant part:

[A] State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of at least 2 States may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air ...

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