Federal Appeals Court Revives Class Action against Airline over Undisclosed Fee

In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit revived a class action lawsuit filed against Avior Airlines accusing the airline of forcing passengers to pay undisclosed fees in order to board flights from Miami to Venezuela. In its decision, the appeals court ruled that the class action suit could proceed and that the district court erred when it found the claims preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act.

Plaintiffs Roberto Hung Cavalieri and Sergio Enrique Isea purchased tickets for flights operated by the defendant Avior Airlines. According to the plaintiffs’ compliant, the plaintiffs purchased tickets from Miami to Venezuela. The itineraries and receipts for the tickets indicated that the price “included taxes and fees.” However, on the day of their flights, the plaintiffs alleged that the airline forced passengers to pay an additional $80 “Exit Fee” before they were permitted to board their departing flights to Venezuela.

The plaintiffs filed suit against the airline alleging that the undisclosed fee constituted a breach of their contracts with the airline, formed when they purchased their tickets. The plaintiffs sought to represent a national class defined as “all persons that Avior charged an Exit Fee, from five years prior to the filing of the initial complaint through the earlier of: (i) the date, if any, Avior changes its contract to expressly include Exit Fees; and (ii) the date of class certification.”

The putative class action got off to a rough start, however. The district court dismissed the lawsuit finding that the Airline Deregulation Act preempted the breach of contract claims. According to the district court, the Act preempts all claims related to related to prices, routes, and services and the plaintiffs’ claims fell into the purview of the Act because it related to pricing.

The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal to the Eleventh Circuit, which disagreed with the district court on the issue of preemption. After examining the issue of jurisdiction and satisfying itself that it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal, the Court recounted the history of the Act. As the Court explained, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978 to eliminate regulation of air carrier prices. The Act includes a preemption provision, providing that “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 carrier.”

While acknowledging that the preemption language is broad, the Court noted that the preemption language is not without limit. It does not, the Court explained, preempt claims concerning contractual obligations voluntarily undertaken by an air carrier. The Court supported its interpretation on the limits of preemption under the Act by citing the Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in American Airlines v. Wolens which created an exception to preemption which allows consumers to sue airlines when the airline breaks its own contract. In Wolens, the Supreme Court ruled that the terms and conditions airlines offer and passengers accept when purchasing a ticket are privately ordered obligations and suits to enforce those terms are not preempted by the Act.

The Court concluded that the plaintiffs’ breach of contract claims was covered by this exception for breach of contract claims recognized in Wolens. The plaintiffs alleged that the airline agreed to transport them from Miami to Venezuela for the ticketed price, inclusive of all fees and taxes, and breached that agreement when it charged the additional $80 Exit Fee. Accordingly, the Court concluded, the claims merely seek recovery for the alleged breach of the airline’s own, self-imposed undertaking regarding the price charged for transport. The Court then reversed the district court’s dismissal based on preemption and remanded for further proceedings.

The Court’s full opinion can be found here.

Our Cook and DuPage county class action and consumer rights lawyers handle individual and class action gift card, data breach, privacy rights, deceptive advertising, predatory lending, unfair debt collection, lemon law, and consumer fraud cases that government agencies and public interest law firms such as the Illinois Attorney General may not pursue. Class action lawsuits that our law firm have led or been involved in or spear-headed have resulted in substantial awards totaling in excess of a million dollars to organizations including the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the National Consumer Law Center, and local law school consumer programs. The Chicago class action lawyers at Lubin Austermuehle are proud of our achievements in assisting national and local consumer rights organizations to obtain the funds needed to ensure that consumers are protected and informed of their rights. By filing consumer protection lawsuits, our attorneys stand up to consumer fraud, consumer rip-offs and unscrupulous or dishonest practices.

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