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Stokes v. Southwest Airlines

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 5, 2018

KELLIE STOKES, Mom and Friend of B.S., Plaintiff - Appellant
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES, Defendant-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before KING, HAYNES, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.


         We must decide whether private persons can sue in federal district court to enforce the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 ("ACAA"), Pub. L. No. 99-435, 100 Stat. 1080 (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 41705). Although we answered that question affirmatively in Shinault v. American Airlines, Inc., 936 F.2d 796, 800 (5th Cir. 1991), the Supreme Court's intervening decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286-91 (2001), now mandates a different result. We therefore join every post-Sandoval federal court to consider the issue and hold that the ACAA confers no such private right of action.


         Kellie Stokes sues Southwest Airlines on behalf of her young son with autism. She alleges that Southwest gate agents prevented her family from boarding their flight, allegedly because the agents considered her son's behavior disruptive. A Southwest pilot had also allegedly been rude to them the previous day. According to Stokes, her son suffered "great physical emotional and mental pain and anguish" as a result of these experiences.

         Stokes originally asserted claims under state law and under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). In response to Southwest's motion to dismiss, however, Stokes withdrew the ADA claim and substituted a new claim under a different disability-discrimination statute: the ACAA. See 49 U.S.C. § 41705(a). Southwest again moved to dismiss, arguing that the state-law claims were preempted and that only the federal government may sue to enforce the ACAA in district court. The district court initially granted the motion to dismiss only in part. But on Southwest's motion to reconsider, the district court held that the ACAA confers no right of action to private litigants; declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims, see 28 U.S.C. 1367(c)(3); and accordingly dismissed the case.

         On appeal, Stokes challenges only the district court's conclusion that the ACAA supplies no private right of action. "We review this issue of law de novo." Casas v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 304 F.3d 517, 520 (5th Cir. 2002).



         Whether a given statute should be enforceable through private civil lawsuits is, like any aspect of statutory design, fundamentally up to Congress. E.g., Sandoval, 532 U.S. at 286; Johnson v. Interstate Mgmt. Co., LLC, 849 F.3d 1093, 1097 (D.C. Cir. 2017); Delancey v. City of Austin, 570 F.3d 590, 592- 93 (5th Cir. 2009). Often, Congress expressly provides for private civil-suit enforcement. Other times, however, Congress specifies only criminal-law enforcement, or leaves civil enforcement in the hands of administrative agencies. Courts are bound to follow Congress's choices in this arena, and bound to ascertain those choices through the tools of statutory interpretation. Sandoval, 532 U.S. at 286-87. "If the statute does not itself so provide, a private cause of action will not be created through judicial mandate." Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843, 1856 (2017).

         This was not always the case. During the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court viewed the fashioning of statutory remedies as within the proper judicial role. Id. at 1855. Under the now-abandoned maxim that "a statutory right implies the existence of all necessary and appropriate remedies, " id. (quoting Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc., 396 U.S. 229, 239 (1969)), this "ancien regime" routinely inferred private rights of action from silent statutory text, id. The Supreme Court's approach has since evolved. Starting in Cort v. Ash, 422 U.S. 66 (1975), affirmative congressional intent became one of four relevant factors (though not always a necessary one), see id. at 78, 82, and the next two decades of cases increasingly focused on congressional intent alone, see, e.g., Love v. Delta Air Lines, 310 F.3d 1347, 1351-52 & n.2 (11th Cir. 2002) (collecting cases). See generally Richard H. Fallon, Jr., et al., The Federal Courts and the Federal System 705-07 (6th ed. 2009).

         That trend culminated in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286-93 (2001), which today defines the method for identifying private rights of action. Sandoval's command is clear: "[t]he judicial task is to interpret the statute Congress has passed, " id. at 286 (emphasis added), and to do so by consulting statutory structure and text, id. at 288 & n.7. "Legal context, " such as prevailing law at the time of the statute's enactment, matters "only to the extent it clari- fies text." Id. at 288. And absent "affirmative" evidence of intent to allow private civil suits, there can be no private right of ...

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