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Fox v. American Airlines

November 30, 2004

KERRY FOX, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 02cv02069)

Before: Sentelle, Henderson and Roberts, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Karen Lecraft Henderson, Circuit Judge

Argued October 12, 2004

Kerry Fox, his two sisters, Susan Fox and Janice Sterling, and a niece, Deirdre Ford-Aikin (appellants), appeal the district court's grant of American Airlines's motion to dismiss their amended complaint seeking damages and injunctive relief resulting from the airline's treatment of them during Kerry Fox's in-flight medical emergency and afterwards. They likewise appeal the district court's denial of their motion to vacate its judgment dismissing their suit. Because the district court acted within its discretion in both instances, we affirm.

I.

In November 2001, the appellants boarded an American Airlines, Inc. (American) flight at Baltimore/Washington International Airport destined for Laredo, Texas.*fn1 During the flight Kerry Fox (Kerry), a diabetic, lapsed into severe insulin shock and, when his sisters' efforts to revive him proved unsuccessful, the plane made an emergency landing in Nashville, Tennessee. The appellants allege that, during Kerry's episode, the flight attendants offered him no medical assistance. They further allege that the entire emergency could have been avoided had American employees granted their request either to allow a family member to be seated near Kerry on the plane or to have the flight attendants monitor his condition in-flight.

Kerry was revived by emergency personnel on the ground in Nashville and, after being treated at a hospital, he was deemed fit to travel on to Laredo. The appellants did not complete the remainder of their journey, however, without experiencing further difficulties. They allege that, because of Kerry's medical emergency, they were searched "thoroughly" before boarding flights from Nashville to Dallas-Ft. Worth and from Dallas on to Laredo. Joint Appendix (J.A.) 23, ¶¶ 28-29. The trip home was "another nightmare." J.A. 23, ¶ 30. They allege that American again targeted them for thorough searches as a result of the earlier emergency, that an American employee refused to board them on their Dallas to Baltimore flight because they again requested that a family member sit near Kerry and that, as a consequence, they were forced to take a later flight home.

On October 23, 2002, the appellants filed a four-count complaint against American, alleging: (I) gross negligence, (II) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (III) breach of contract and (IV) violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. and accompanying federal regulations. On November 19, 2002, American filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing, among other things, that the appellants' allegations implicated the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), 49 U.S.C. §§ 41705 et seq., not the ADA. On November 21, 2002, the district court issued its "Standing Order" apprising the parties of their obligation to comply with local and federal rules of procedure, including Local Rule 7.*fn2 On December 2, 2002, the appellants took American's cue and amended their complaint to allege violations of the ACAA instead of the ADA. They also filed an opposition to American's motion to dismiss.

On December 6, 2003, American moved to dismiss the amended complaint but this time the appellants did not respond. Instead, on January 14, 2003, they filed a joint meet and confer statement and proposed scheduling order, which repeatedly referenced a pending "motion to dismiss." J.A. 3. On August 5, 2003, the district court granted American's motion to dismiss the amended complaint.

Relying on Local Rule 7(b) of the Rules of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, see D.D.C. LOCAL RULE 7(b), the district court explained that "because the plaintiffs failed to respond to the defendant's second motion, the court treats the motion as conceded and grants the motion." Mem. Op., Granting Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint, at 4, reprinted in J.A. 12. Having dismissed the amended complaint under Local Rule 7(b), the district court then noted that the appellants' opposition to American's motion to dismiss the original complaint did challenge American's contention that count IV failed to state a claim under the ADA. The district court concluded, however, that even if it treated the appellants' opposition as an opposition to American's motion to dismiss the amended complaint, it would nonetheless grant that motion with respect to count IV under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). As the district court saw it, "because the defendant's argument that the ACAA does not create a private right of action is substantively correct, even if the court were to treat the plaintiffs' opposition to the defendant's first motion as an opposition to the defendant's second motion, the court's decision to grant the defendant's motion to dismiss Count IV would remain the same." J.A. 16.

The appellants subsequently moved under FRCP Rule 59(e) to vacate the district court's judgment, asserting two grounds. They claimed that the court's judgment should be vacated, first, because their counsel failed to receive electronic notice of American's second motion to dismiss and, second, because their amended complaint alleged a claim under the ACAA, which American was estopped from contesting. The district court concluded that neither argument required the court to vacate its judgment to prevent "manifest injustice," Mem. Op., Denying Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment, at 5, reprinted in J.A. 5, and consequently, denied the motion.

As to the appellants' first contention, the district court concluded that, despite their counsel's claimed ignorance, he should have known that a second motion lay pending. That the court uses an electronic filing system that automatically sends the parties e-mail notices when documents are filed, the district court explained, did not relieve counsel of his independent obligation to monitor the court's docket. And had he checked the docket, the court pointed out, he would have discovered the motion. The court further noted that, on January 15, 2003, counsel had filed a joint meet and confer statement and proposed scheduling order, which referred to a pending motion to dismiss. "[H]ad [plaintiffs' counsel] checked the docket when filing the joint statement," the court observed, "he would have noticed that the defendant had filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint approximately five and a half weeks earlier." J.A. 6. Moreover, said the district court, counsel should have realized that the pending motion he referenced in his statement related to the amended complaint, especially given that he should have been expecting an answer to it.

As to their second argument, the district court concluded that it did not constitute a proper basis to amend the judgment as it essentially recycled "claims that the court has already rejected." ...


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