Preemption plays a big part in aviation litigation. Not so much in supporting removal jurisdiction. Yan Yang’s parents alleged in Yan v. US Aviation Group, LLC, that Yan—a Chinese student at the defendant flight school—was “regularly bullied, abused, and humiliated” by its staff because of school policies that led to harassment of Chinese flight students. After Yan committed suicide, Yan’s parents sued US Aviation Group in state court in Texas for his death.

Although Yan’s parents alleged that the school discriminated based on the students’ nationality, the causes of action pleaded in the complaint were all state law tort claims. US Aviation Group, asserting federal question jurisdiction, removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Its arguments were premised on the connection to flight training, the assertion being that “each of the complained-of acts were committed in furtherance of [US Aviation Group’s] purpose as an aviation academy and thus relate to aviation safety.” The plaintiffs moved to remand.

The District Court analyzed two possible bases for removal jurisdiction. First, pursuant to Grable & Sons Metal Prods., Inc. v. Darue Eng’g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 314 (2005), the Court could keep the case if the state law claims necessarily raised a disputed and substantial issue of federal law. Judge Jordan held that Grable preemption did not apply because the claims did not necessarily raise a federal issue, certainly not a substantial one.

Second, the Court could deny the remand motion if the claim fell into the narrow realm of “complete preemption.” A federal statute’s preemptive force may be so extraordinary and all-encompassing that it converts an ordinary state-common-law complaint into one stating a federal claim for purposes of the well-pleaded-complaint rule; that is what is called “complete preemption.”

With respect to complete preemption, the judge explained that US Aviation Group cited only one case that had applied the complete preemption doctrine to aviation safety, Lawal v. British Airways, PLC, 812 F. Supp. 713 (S.D. Tex. 1992). In addition to suggesting that Lawal no longer is good law, Judge Jordan added that, “even if the field of aviation safety were completely preempted by federal law, Plaintiffs’ claims do not relate to aviation safety.” The Court gave as an example of how far removed from aviation safety the plaintiffs’ allegations were the claim that “only Chinese students [were required] to perform ‘demoralizing tasks unrelated to aviation training [such as] spending entire days holding doors open for staff and other students and cleaning floors, planes and bathrooms.’”

Using preemption as a defense to aviation cases is common. Using preemption to get a state court case into, and keeping it in, federal court is rare. Yan v. US Aviation Group, LLC, No. 4:20-cv-793-SDJ, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 240855 (E.D. Tex. Dec. 22, 2020)

NOTE: One example of an aviation case in which the Schnader Aviation Group succeeded in removing an aviation tort case to federal court and keeping it there was McMahon v. Presidential Airways, Inc., 410 F. Supp. 2d 1189 (M.D. Fla. 2006). McMahon involved a DOD contractor flying missions in Afghanistan, and the Court accepted the defense argument that the case raised substantial questions of federal law under Grable.

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