Coulier v. United Airlines, Inc.

Decision Date21 May 2015
Docket NumberCivil Action No. H–15–190.
Citation110 F.Supp.3d 730
Parties Scott COULIER, Individually, and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiff, v. UNITED AIRLINES, INC. and Does 1–50, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas

Caleb L.H. Marker, Ridout Lyon & Ottoson, LLP, Long Beach, CA, Hart Lawrence Robinovitch, Zimmerman Reed PLLP, Scottsdale, AZ, Jeffrey S. Edwards, The Edwards Law Firm, Austin, TX, for Plaintiff.

Richard T. Stilwell, Baker & Hostetler LLP, Houston, TX, Sondra A. Hemeryck, Tal C. Chaiken, Schiff Hardin LLP, Chicago, IL, for Defendants.

ORDER

GRAY H. MILLER, District Judge.

Pending before the court is a motion to dismiss filed by defendant United Airlines, Inc. ("United"). Dkt. 15. After considering the motion, response, reply, and applicable law, the court is of the opinion that United's motion should be GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

This is a breach of contract case relating to United's "Low Fare Guarantee." Dkt. 1. Plaintiff Scott Coulier purchased three one-way tickets on United Airlines from United's website, united.com, on January 26, 2014. Dkt. 1. He asserts that he was aware, at the time, that United had a Low Fare Guarantee, and he thus assumed that cheaper tickets were not available for any of the tickets he purchased. Id. Coulier claims that he realized after purchasing the three tickets together that he could have purchased the same tickets separately for less on united.com. Id. Coulier contends that when consumers purchase tickets as a group on united.com, if there are not enough tickets available in the lowest available class of fares, then the price for each ticket will be increased to the next available fare category, and the lower fare category will disappear from united.com and all other websites selling United tickets.Id. For instance, if a consumer wishes to purchase three tickets at the lowest price and the only seats available on the plane are two seats at $100 each and five seats at $150 each, if the consumer buys three tickets separately on united.com before any other consumers take the $100 fares, the consumer will be able to purchase three tickets for $350 (two at $100 and one at $150). There would be four seats still available that cost $150 each. No seats costing $100 would be left. If the consumer instead buys the three tickets together, according to Coulier, rather than charging only $100 for the first two seats, United increases the two available $100 seats to $150 and sells all three seats at $150 each. The three seats purchased together thus cost $450 ($150 times 3). The $100 fares disappear altogether, and there are still, just as in the scenario in which the consumer bought the seats in separate transactions, four seats left at $150 each.

The Low Fare Guarantee advertised on united.com states:

Forget those so-called low-fare travel websites and spend less time planning and searching for flights. When it comes to finding the lowest United® fare online, we guarantee you will find it on united.com. In fact, if you find a fare for the same flight, itinerary and cabin at a price that is lower than the fare offered on united.com by $10 or more, we'll make up the difference and give you a $100 USD Electronic Travel Certificate. And not only will you find the lowest fare at united.com, but you'll never pay a service fee for booking online.
Here's how this offer works:
• Purchase your ticket at united.com (with a qualifying billing address).
• If you find a published retail price online, for the same United flight, itinerary and cabin, that is lower than the fare purchased on the same day of your original United purchase by $10 or more, call your local United Customer Contact Center office and a representative will connect you with one of our specialists to file your claim.
We'll refund the difference and give you a $100 USD Electronic Travel Certificate toward a future United flight if we can verify the lower online fare.
We've made united.com one of the most user-friendly travel sites anywhere. You can manage all your flight, hotel and car rental reservations, save up to 75% when booking hotel stays, and save time by checking in online for your flight.

Id. The terms and conditions of the Low Price Guarantee state:

1. Your claim must be made by midnight local time in the country of this country-specific website on the same day on which the ticket is purchased, or within four hours if the ticket is purchased after 8 p.m. local time. Claims must be made by calling your local United Customer Contact Center office. Claims for this offer may not be made through any other United Airlines phone number.
* * *
5. Tickets must be the least expensive available on united.com for the chosen itinerary at the time of purchase. "Lower online fare" means air-only fares which are displayed and sold on a publicly-accessible Internet site for the exact same flights on the same travel dates for the same travel itinerary. Corporate, military, vacation package, opaque agencies and other status discount fares are not eligible. Fares must be for the same cabin (United Global FirstSM, United BusinessFirst®, United First®, United Business® or United Economy®), and for the exact same flights that carry the same fare restrictions.
6. United Airlines must be able to verify the lower online fare online at the time of claim. Other methods of verification (e.g., faxes, screen prints, etc.) are not eligible.

Id.

Coulier contends that he purchased the tickets on united.com, as required by the Low Price Guarantee. Id. He was, however, unable to prove that there was a lower published price online because, contemporaneously with selling a given ticket at the next-highest fare category when it the ticket is sold in a group, United replaces the allotment of lower fares with more expensive fares, resulting in the elimination of any available lower fares. Id. Coulier asserts that this made it impossible for him to locate the less expensive fares after he completed his purchase and it was impossible for any United representative to find the lower fares on a publicly accessible Internet site. Id.

Coulier filed this lawsuit against United on behalf of himself and similarly situated individuals on January 21, 2015. Id. He asserts only one cause of action: breach of contract. Id. Coulier contends that the Low Fare Guarantee becomes part of the consumer's ticket contract with United as soon as the consumer purchases a ticket on united.com and that United breached the contract by failing to provide the lowest price per ticket when tickets were purchased as a group. Id.

United moves to dismiss Coulier's claim. Dkt. 15. United argues that Coulier did not perform the terms and conditions of the Low Fare Guarantee, which require Coulier to find a fare on a different website for the exact same travel itinerary that is at least $10 less than the fare he paid on united.com and file a claim with United by midnight on the date of purchase. Dkt. 15–1. United additionally argues that Coulier's claim is preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 ("ADA"), 49 U.S.C. §§ 40101, et seq., because Collier attempts to add an obligation that United did not voluntarily undertake in its Low Fare Guarantee. Id.

Coulier argues that the Low Fare Guarantee does not state that the low fare must be on a different website or that it is for only single ticket purchases. Dkt. 18. He asserts that he was excused from performing the terms and conditions of the Low Fare Guarantee because United made it impossible. Id. As far as the ADA, Coulier contends that he is alleging a breach of contract claim and nothing more, and that breach of contract claims are not preempted by the ADA. Dkt. 18.

The court will first discuss the legal standard for motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. It will then address whether Coulier has stated a breach of contract claim against United.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

" Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,’ in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’ " Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964–65, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957) ). In considering a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint, courts generally must accept the factual allegations contained in the complaint as true. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Sales, Inc. v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 677 F.2d 1045, 1050 (5th Cir.1982). The court does not look beyond the face of the pleadings in determining whether the plaintiff has stated a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Spivey v. Robertson, 197 F.3d 772, 774 (5th Cir.1999). "[A] complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, [but] a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1964–65 (citing Sanjuan v. Am. Bd. of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir.1994) ) (internal citations omitted). And, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. The supporting facts must be plausible—enough to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal further supporting evidence. Id. at 1959.

III. ANALYSIS

Coulier's sole cause of action is a breach of contract claim. In order to determine whether Coulier has stated a claim for breach of contract, the court must first determine if the Low Fare Guarantee is an offer to enter into a unilateral contract or if it is part of the bilateral contract of carriage entered into when a consumer purchases an airline ticket. United contends that the Low Fare Guarantee is an offer to customers who purchase...

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