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U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS overturns pilot’s $1.2M defamation award against airline for mental instability report

Posted Jan 27, 2014 12:10 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a $1.2 million award to a pilot who sued over an airline’s report to the Transportation Security Administration that managers were concerned about his mental stability and he may be armed.

The court ruled (PDF) against William Hoeper, who sued Air Wisconsin for making the report after he failed a final flight simulator test; a passing grade was needed to continue working for the airline. Hoeper admits tossing his headset, exchanging words at “an elevated decibel level,” and accusing the instructor of creating an unrealistic test. Hoeper was authorized to carry a gun as a pilot, and airline officials were worried that he could bypass airport security while carrying a weapon. He was removed from his flight home, but he had no weapon when TSA agents searched him.

Airlines have immunity under federal law for reporting suspicious behavior to the TSA except when the report is known to be false or made with a reckless disregard for the truth. In this case, the Supreme Court majority said, there was no finding that the disclosure by Air Wisconsin was materially false, as required by court opinions interpreting this standard, the Supreme Court said. As a result, a Colorado Supreme Court opinion finding no immunity for the airline must be reversed, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.

In this case, Sotomayor said, the gist of the airline’s warnings were accurate. “It is irrelevant whether trained lawyers or judges might with the luxury of time have chosen more precise words,” Sotomayor’s opinion said.

Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in part and dissented in part in an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan. Scalia said the majority should have remanded for further proceedings after finding that the material falsity standard applies. “The court in my view reaches out to decide a fact bound question better left to the lower courts, and then proceeds to give the wrong answer,” Scalia wrote. He argued the award could be justified given the association of Hoeper’s conduct with dangerous mental illness.

Sotomayor responded to Scalia’s arguments in her majority opinion, saying that worries over wording could delay reports of suspicious behavior to the TSA.

In this case, Sotomayor said, Hoeper “cannot dispute the literal truth” of the airline’s report that he may be armed. The airlines also reported that Hoeper “was terminated today”; though he had not yet been fired, Sotomayor said, his firing “was almost certainly imminent.” Sotomayor also wrote that the airline’s report that supervisors were concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability had conveyed the gist of the situation.

“All of us from time to time use words that, on reflection, we might modify,” Sotomayor said. “If such slips of the tongue could give rise to major financial liability, no airline would contact the TSA (or permit its employees to do so) without running by its lawyers the text of its proposed disclosure—exactly the kind of hesitation that Congress aimed to avoid.”

Sotomayor also took issue with Scalia’s statement that Hoeper’s “display of anger” made him no more a threat than “millions of perfectly harmless air travelers.”

“Hoeper did not just lose his temper,” Sotomayor wrote, “he lost it in circumstances that he knew would lead to his firing, which he regarded as the culmination of a vendetta against him. And he was not just any passenger; he was [authorized to carry a firearm.] In short, Hoeper was not some traveling businessman who yelled at a barista in a fit of pique over a badly brewed cup of coffee.”

The case is Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "SCOTUS considers defamation claim by pilot who sued airline over mentally unstable warning"

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