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Hofmann v. Virgin America Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

April 17, 2017

IAN HOFMANN, Plaintiff,


          BETH LABSON FREEMAN United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Ian Hofmann (“Hofmann”)'s motion to remand on the ground that there is no federal question jurisdiction. Mot. 2, ECF 26. For reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS Hofmann' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 5, 2016, Hofmann, an airline pilot, filed a complaint in Superior Court of the State of California, San Mateo County, alleging that Defendant Virgin America, Inc. (“Virgin”) wrongfully terminated him in retaliation for complaints he raised about airline safety. Compl., ECF 1-2. The following facts are taken from Hofmann's complaint.

         On April 9, 2014, Hofmann filed a report detailing his co-pilot's non-conformance and insubordination to the Aviation Safety Action Program (the “ASAP”), established by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). Compl. ¶ 10. Through ASAP an Event Review Committee (“ERC”) made up of representatives from the airline, the FAA, and employee associations review submitted reports to identify potential threats to passengers' safety and to develop corrective actions for individuals. Id. ¶ 9. Virgin's ERC dismissed Hofmann's complaint on May 29, 2014, claiming that it did not involve a legitimate safety issue. Id. ¶ 11. Hofmann challenged Virgin's handling of the complaint on several grounds and complained to Virgin's ASAP program manager and director of operations. Id. ¶ 12. On June 12, 2014, Hofmann stated his intent in an email to “[make his] inquires to the FAA.” Id. ¶ 13. Virgin then allegedly began “a systematic campaign of retaliation against him, ” and terminated him on August 26, 2014, a few weeks after Hofmann started aiding the FAA in an investigation of how Virgin handled the ASAP complaint. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. Hofmann further claims that Virgin failed to follow the written policy of the agreement for his termination pursuant to the pilots' agreement with Virgin. Id. ¶ 15. During the almost eight years he was an aircraft captain at Virgin, Hofmann was not an “at-will” employee as the pilots' agreement required Virgin to terminate a pilot only upon established “just cause.” Id. ¶¶ 7-8.

         Hofmann filed a state court complaint asserting the following four causes of actions: wrongful termination in violation of public policy, retaliation against an employee for disclosing information to a government agency in violation of California Labor Code § 1102.5, breach of contract, and tortious breach of convenient of good faith and fair dealing. Id. ¶¶ 20-40.

         On September 8, 2016, Virgin removed the case to this Court, based on federal question jurisdiction because Virgin's liability “turns on federal law under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.” Notice of Removal ¶¶ 8, 11, 12, ECF 1 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1331). Hofmann now moves to remand, arguing that there is no federal jurisdiction. Having carefully considered the submitted papers, the Court GRANTS Hofmann's motion and remands this action to state court for the reasons discussed below.


         Removal is proper where the federal courts have original jurisdiction over an action brought in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Courts strictly construe the removal statute against removal jurisdiction. E.g., Provincial Gov't of Marinduque v. Placer Dome, Inc., 582 F.3d 1083, 1087 (9th Cir. 2009); Luther v. Countrywide Home Loans Servicing, LP, 533 F.3d 1031, 1034 (9th Cir.2008). “A defendant seeking removal has the burden to establish that removal is proper and any doubt is resolved against removability.” Luther, 533 F.3d at 1034 (citation omitted); see also Moore-Thomas v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 553 F.3d 1241, 1244 (9th Cir.2009) (“[A]ny doubt about the right of removal requires resolution in favor of remand.”).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal courts have original jurisdiction over civil actions “arising under the Constitution, laws, or treatises of the United States.” Federal question jurisdiction “is determined, and must exist, as of the time the complaint is filed and removal is effected.” Strotek Corp. v. Air Transp. Ass'n of Am., 300 F.3d 1129, 1131 (9th Cir. 2002). Removal pursuant to § 1331 is governed by the “well-pleaded complaint rule, ” which provides that federal question jurisdiction exists only when “a federal question is presented on the face of plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987).


         The issue before this Court is whether there is original federal question jurisdiction to support the removal of this case from state court.

         According to Hofmann, Virgin overstates the scope of preemption and the FAA does not completely preempt the state law claims asserted in the complaint. Mot. 4, ECF 26. Specifically, Hofmann contends that the Ninth Circuit has made it clear that Congress does not occupy the field of employment law in the aviation context. Id. (citing Ventress v. Japan Airlines, 747 F.3d 716, 722 (9th Cir. 2014)). Hofmann further argues that the wrongful termination and the whistleblower statutes do not fall within the zone of preemption as they do not interfere with the federal regulatory scheme for airlines. Mot. 5-7 (citing Ulysse v. AAR Aircraft Component Servs., 841 F.Supp.2d 659, 676 (E.D.N.Y. 2012); Hamilton v. United Airlines, Inc., 960 F.Supp.2d 776, 784 (N.D. Ill. 2012))

         In opposing this motion, Virgin argues that the FAA completely preempts Hofmann's state law claims so the “well-pleaded complaint rule” does not apply. Opp'n 4. Specifically, Virgin contends that Hofmann's complaint is a “backdoor challenge” to Virgin's determination of his qualification and fitness ...

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