Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

PETITIONER: Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation
RESPONDENT: William L. Hoeper
LOCATION: Air Wisconsin Training Facility

DOCKET NO.: 12-315
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 571 US 855 (2014)
GRANTED: Jun 17, 2013
ARGUED: Dec 09, 2013
DECIDED: Jan 27, 2014

ADVOCATES:
Eric J. Feigin - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Jonathan F. Cohn - on behalf of the petitioner
Kevin K. Russell - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Section 125 of the Aviation Transportation Safety Act (ATSA) states that an air carrier who voluntarily reports suspicious transactions or behavior shall not be "civilly liable." The immunity does not apply to disclosures made with "actual knowledge" that the disclosure is false, inaccurate, or misleading. Likewise, the immunity does not extend to an air carrier that makes a disclosure with "reckless disregard" as to its truth or falsity.

William Hoeper, a pilot for Air Wisconsin, made four unsuccessful attempts to become certified to fly another type of aircraft after Air Wisconsin discontinued use of the type of plane that Hoeper had previously piloted. During his fourth and final opportunity to pass the test, Hoeper abruptly ended the test because he believed that the test administrators were deliberately sabotaging his efforts to pass. One test administrator knew that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had issued a firearm to Hoeper in his role as a federal flight deck officer (FFDO). FFDO pilots are not allowed to carry the firearm while traveling as passengers. This administrator booked Hoeper on a flight from the testing center in Virginia to Hoeper's home in Denver and then called the TSA to report that Hoeper was a disgruntled, and possibly armed, employee. In response, TSA officials arrested and searched Hoeper.

Hoeper sued Air Wisconsin in a Colorado state court and alleged defamation under Virginia law. Air Wisconsin moved for a directed verdict based on the argument that it was immune from civil liability under ATSA. Air Wisconsin also argued that Hoeper could not prove "actual malice" because its statements were "substantially true" and therefore protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss. The jury found that Air Wisconsin's statements to the TSA were false and that it made at least one statement with reckless disregard for the truth, so the jury awarded Hoeper damages. A Colorado appellate court affirmed the verdict. The Colorado Supreme Court held that the trial court's submission of the matter to the jury was improper; however, the error was harmless in this case because Air Wisconsin was not entitled to claim immunity under ATSA. The Colorado Supreme Court further held that substantial evidence supported the jury's finding that the statements were false.

Question

1. Must a trial court decide whether the Aviation and Transportation Security Act grants immunity to a party before trial?

2. Does the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment require a court to independently examine the record when reviewing a defamation case?

Media for Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 2013 in Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 27, 2014 in Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning in case 12-315, Air Wisconsin Airlines versus Hoeper, which she has asked me to announce for her.

William Hoeper worked as a Denver-based pilot for Air Wisconsin.

But when Air Wisconsin stopped flying from Denver on any type of aircraft that Hoeper was certified to operate, he had to gain certification on a new type of aircraft to keep his job.

Hoeper failed in his first three attempts to pass the certification test.

Air Wisconsin agreed to give him a fourth and final chance, but when Hoeper traveled to Virginia for a required training session in a simulator, he failed that too.

Hoeper responded angrily to the failure raising his voice, using profanity, tossing his headset and accusing the instructor of railroading the situation.

The instructor called an Air Wisconsin manager who discussed the situation at headquarters with other officials.

By that point, Hoeper had been booked on a flight back to Denver and the officials were concerned that he might be a risk to the safety of that flight.

The officials discussed Hoeper's outburst, the fact that he was going to be fired and the history of assaults by disgruntled airline employees.

They were also worried that Hoeper might be carrying a gun because he was registered flight - Federal Flight Deck Officer or FFDO.

In light of all this, an executive decided that the airline should notify the Transportation Security Administration of the situation.

One of the airline officials called the TSA and stated that Hoeper was an FFDO who may be armed that the airline was concerned about his mental stability and the whereabouts of his firearm and that an unstable pilot in the FFDO program was terminated today.

In response, the TSA removed Hoeper from his plane, searched him and questioned him about the location of his gun.

Air Wisconsin fired Hoeper the next day.

Hoeper sued Air Wisconsin for defamation in Colorado state court.

The Airline raised as a defense provision of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act or ATSA which makes airlines and their employees immune from civil liability for disclosing suspicious behavior to the authorities.

Critically for this case, ATS immunity does not protect any disclosure made with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading, or made with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.

The jury found for Hoeper and the Colorado Appellate Court's affirmed laboring under the assumption that even true statements do not qualify for ATSA immunity if they are made recklessly.

The Colorado Supreme Court held that Air Wisconsin was not entitled to immunity because its statements to the TSA were made with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.

We now reverse that judgment holding that ATSA immunity may not be denied to materially true statements.

Congress modeled the exception to ATSA immunity after the actual malice standard of New York Times versus Sullivan and we have long-interpreted that standard as requiring material falsity.

We therefore assume that Congress meant to deny ATSA immunity only to materially false statements.

Other indicia of statutory meaning could rebut that presumption, but here, they do not.

The Colorado state courts disagreed as to whether ATSA immunity is a question for the judge or the jury and we do not resolve that disagreement.

Rather, we conclude that even if a jury were to find the facts in the manner most favorable to Hoeper, Air Wisconsin would be entitled to ATS immunity as a matter of law.For purposes of ATSA immunity, a falsehood cannot be material unless there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable security officer would consider it important in determining a response to the supposed threat.

For the reasons we explained in our opinion, we do not think any falsehood in Air Wisconsin's statements to the TSA was material.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado is therefore reversed and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justice Thomas and Justice Kagan have joined.