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Chau v. Air Cargo Carriers, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

November 14, 2019

AIR CARGO CARRIERS, LLC, et al., Defendants.



         Before the Court is a motion to remand filed by Plaintiff, Virginia Chau, as Administratrix of the Estate of Anh Kim Ho (“Plaintiff”). (ECF Nos. 9, 15.) For the reasons discussed below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arises from an airplane crash on May 5, 2017, at Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia. (ECF No. 1-1 at 6 ¶ 24.) Defendants United Parcel Services Co. and UPS Airlines, Inc. (collectively, “UPS”) operate a cargo airline that contracts with Defendant Air Cargo Carriers' (“ACC”) to provide short haul airline services for UPS. (Id. at 4 ¶ 2, 5 ¶¶ 3, 6.) ACC's Flight No. 1260 crashed while completing a regularly scheduled cargo route between Louisville, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia. (Id. at 9 ¶ 24.) Plaintiff's decedent, Anh Kim Ho, was the first officer on the aircraft, and the Kanawha County Sheriff's decedent, Jonathan Pablo Alvarado, was the captain piloting the plane. (Id. at 4 ¶ 1, 5 ¶ 5, 9 ¶ 24.) Both Anh Ho and Alvarado were killed in the crash. (Id. at 10 ¶ 26.)

         Based on these facts, Plaintiff filed this action in Kanawha County Circuit Court on May 3, 2019, asserting state statutory and common law tort claims against ACC, UPS, and Alvarado through his estate in Kanawha County (“Alvarado”). (Id. at 10-15 ¶¶ 27-51.) Specifically, Count I of the Complaint alleges a deliberate intent claim against ACC. Plaintiff alleges that ACC was regulated by the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996 (“PRIA”), 49 U.S.C. § 44703, and related federal aviation rules, regulations, and standards and that the actions and inactions of ACC in violation of these specific rules intentionally exposed Plaintiff's decedent to unsafe working conditions. (Id. at 10-13 ¶¶ 28-37.) Count II asserts a negligence claim against UPS, alleging that they breached their duty to ensure that its air cargo carriers operated “in compliance with aviation statutes, rules, regulations, and consensus industry standards” and to investigate and report any unsafe practices. (Id. at 13 ¶ 39.) The Complaint alleges that UPS knew, or should have known, that ACC lacked certain required “safety positions and programs” and that it failed to ensure that required pilot training, background checks, and reporting duties pertaining to alleged “reckless flying activities” had been performed. (Id. at 14 ¶¶ 40, 41.) Finally, Count III asserts a fraud claim against Alvarado on the basis that he misrepresented his piloting skills on his application with ACC in violation of PRIA and other aviation standards. (Id. at 17-18 ¶¶ 50.) Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages against these defendants for wrongful death and personal injuries.

         On June 13, 2019, UPS removed this action to this Court. (ECF No. 1.) In the Notice of Removal, UPS asserts that the Federal Aviation Act (“FAA”) and PRIA completely preempt Plaintiff's state law claims and, thus, confer this Court with federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. They also assert diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. On June 27, 2019, Plaintiff filed the present motion to remand. (ECF Nos. 9, 15.) UPS and ACC filed timely responses, (ECF Nos. 17, 19), and Plaintiff timely replied, (ECF Nos. 20, 21).[1] As such, the motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.


         Article III of the United States Constitution provides, in pertinent part, that “[t]he judicial Power shall extend . . . to Controversies . . . between Citizens of different States.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. Congress has provided a right of removal from state to federal court for any case that could have originally been brought in federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal district courts have original jurisdiction “of all civil actions arising under the constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Additionally, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1) confers federal district courts with “original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between . . . citizens of different States.”

         The party asserting federal jurisdiction bears the burden of proof. Landmark Corp. v. Apogee Coal Co., 945 F.Supp. 932, 935 (S.D. W.Va. 1996). “When removal is challenged, the defendant must establish jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.” S. v. Marion Cty. Coal Co., No. 1:15-cv-171, 2015 WL 6964651, at *2 (N.D. W.Va. Nov. 10, 2015) (citing Strawn v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 530 F.3d 293, 297-98 (4th Cir. 2008)). Because removal of civil cases from state to federal court infringes state sovereignty, federal courts strictly construe the removal statute and resolve all doubts in favor of remanding cases to state court. See Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 109 (1941); see also Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994) (“Because removal jurisdiction raises significant federalism concerns, we must strictly construe removal jurisdiction.” (citation omitted)).


         The well-pleaded-complaint rule has long governed whether a case “arises under” federal law. See, e.g., Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 415 U.S. 125, 127-28 (1974); Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (explaining that, absent diversity of citizenship, removal to federal court is proper only if a federal question is apparent on the face of the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint). The well-pleaded complaint rule “makes the plaintiff the master of the claim; he or she may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law.” Id. However, complete preemption is an exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule and provides a basis for federal question jurisdiction “if the subject matter of a putative state law claim has been totally subsumed by federal law” such “that state law cannot even treat on the subject matter . . . .” Lontz v. Tharp, 413 F.3d 435, 439-40 (4th Cir. 2005); see Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207 (2004) (complete preemption applies “when a federal statute wholly displaces the state-law cause of action” relating to the same subject matter). Under the doctrine of complete preemption, a state claim arises under federal law when Congress “so completely preempt[s] a particular area that any civil complaint raising th[e] select group of claims is necessarily federal in character.” Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 63-64 (1987).

         Complete preemption is distinguishable from “ordinary” preemption. See Lontz, 413 F.3d at 440 (stating that “ordinary preemption simply declares the primacy of federal law, regardless of the forum or the claim.” (citation omitted)). “As a defense, [federal preemption] does not appear on the face of a well-pleaded complaint, and, therefore, does not authorize removal to federal court.” Taylor, 481 U.S. at 63 (citation omitted); see Caterpillar, 483 U.S. at 392-93 (noting that removal based on a federal defense is not proper “even if the defense is anticipated in the plaintiff's complaint, and even if both parties concede that the federal defense is the only question truly at issue.” (citation omitted)). In contrast, complete preemption “transforms a state-law claim into one arising under federal law” and, thus, satisfies the well-pleaded complaint rule, “even though the complainant never intended to raise an issue of federal law.” In re Blackwater Sec. Consulting, LLC, 460 F.3d 576, 584 (4th Cir. 2006). Removal on the basis of complete preemption requires a showing that the plaintiff has a “discernible federal cause of action” and that “Congress intended [the federal claim] to be the exclusive remedy for the alleged wrong.” King v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 337 F.3d 421, 425 (4th Cir. 2003); see Lontz, 413 F.3d at 441 (noting that “the congressional intent that state law be entirely displaced must be clear in the text of the statute.” (citation omitted)). Courts have applied complete preemption “only where Congress creates an exclusive federal cause of action covering the plaintiff's claim.” Carter v. Central Reg'l W.Va. Airport Auth., No. 2:15-cv-13155, 2016 WL 4005932, at *13 (S.D. W.Va. July 25, 2016).

         UPS argues here that Plaintiff's state law tort claims should be converted into ones arising under federal law because they implicate significant questions regarding Defendants' compliance with federal law. Plaintiff's Complaint, as noted previously, contains multiple references to federal statutory and regulatory requirements allegedly violated by Defendants. In particular, UPS points to Plaintiff's claims based on alleged violations of PRIA, namely that Defendants' failed to adequately investigate Alvarado's background and disclose the results of their investigation. (See ECF No. 1-1 at 11 ¶ 30.) They contend that Section 44703(j)(2) of the Act, which explicitly precludes claims that affect the furnishing or use of pilot records, completely preempts Plaintiff's claims that seek to impose liability for alleged PRIA violations. (ECF No. 17 at 5-6.)

         PRIA was enacted to ensure that air carriers and operators adequately investigate a pilot's background before hiring that pilot to conducting air carrier flights. The Act applies to any hiring air carrier and operator and requires the requesting, gathering, sharing, and evaluation of information pertaining to pilot qualifications, safety background, and employment records. To ensure that states do not prohibit, penalize, or impose liability on air carriers for reporting ...

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