McClain v. Cape Air, 22-cv-10649-DJC

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
Docket Number22-cv-10649-DJC
Decision Date22 May 2023


I. Introduction

Plaintiffs Christopher Connor McClain (McClain), Dennis Abramov (Abramov), Miles Collins (Collins), Jeffrey Butler Hanson, Jr. (Hanson), Ricky LeBlanc (LeBlanc), Samuel Shepherd (Shepherd), William Tennant (Tennant), Ohiana Negrete (Negrete), Jose Mora (Mora) Nathan Barnes (Barnes), Steven Morton (Morton) and Daniel Bianca (Bianca), (collectively Plaintiffs) have sued Defendant Cape Air alleging violation of the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 216, (Count I) and Mass. Gen. L. c. 151 §§ 1, 20 (Count II), coerced labor in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”), 18 U.S.C. § 1595, (Count III) violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (“MCRA”), Mass. Gen. L. c. 12 § 11H-I, (Count IV) and unjust enrichment (Count V).

D. 5. Plaintiffs McClain, Collins, LeBlanc, Shepherd, Negrete, Bianca, Morton, Tennant, and Abramov also allege breach of contract (Count VI) and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (Count VII). D. 5. Cape Air moved to dismiss all counts. D. 19-D. 30. For the reasons stated below, the Court ALLOWS Cape Air's motions to dismiss, D. 19-D. 30, in part and DENIES them in part.

II. Standard of Review
A. Dismissal for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1)

Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), a defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. [T]he party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court carries the burden of proving its existence.” Murphy v. United States, 45 F.3d 520, 522 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Taber Partners, I v. Merit Builders, Inc., 987 F.2d 57, 60 (1st Cir. 1993)). When confronted with such a motion, “the district court must construe the complaint liberally, treating all well-pleaded facts as true and indulging all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Aversa v. United States, 99 F.3d 1200, 1209-10 (1st Cir. 1996) (citing Murphy, 45 F.3d at 522). The Court, however, may widen its gaze and look beyond the pleadings to determine jurisdiction. See Martinez-Rivera v. Puerto Rico, 812 F.3d 69, 74 (1st Cir. 2016). Further, [w]hen faced with motions to dismiss under both 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), a district court, absent good reason to do otherwise, should ordinarily decide the 12(b)(1) motion first.” Ne. Erectors Ass'n v. Sec'y of Lab., 62 F.3d 37, 39 (1st Cir. 1995).

B. Dismissal for Failure to State a Claim under Rule 12(b)(6)

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must determine if the facts alleged “plausibly narrate a claim for relief.” Germanowski v. Harris, 854 F.3d 68, 71 (1st Cir. 2017). Reading the complaint “as a whole,” the Court must conduct a two-step, contextspecific inquiry. Garda-Catalan v. United States, 734 F.3d 100, 103 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the Court must perform a close reading of the claim to distinguish the factual allegations from the conclusory legal allegations contained therein. Id. Factual allegations must be accepted as true, while conclusory legal conclusions are not entitled credit. Id. Second, the Court must determine whether the factual allegations present a “reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). In sum, the complaint must provide sufficient factual allegations for the Court to find the claim “plausible on its face.” Garda-Catalan, 734 F.3d at 103 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

III. Factual Background

Except where otherwise noted, the following facts are drawn from Plaintiffs' amended complaint, D. 5, and are accepted as true for the purpose of resolving Cape Air's motions to dismiss.

Plaintiffs were pilots seeking Airline Transport Pilot (“ATP”) certification, a requirement to pilot commercial air flights. D. 5 ¶ 32. Generally, a pilot must achieve 1,500 hours of flight time to be eligible to take the ATP practical test. Id. ¶ 34. Plaintiffs allege that “the cost of ATP certification is less than $10,000.” Id. ¶ 81.

Between 2019 and 2021, Plaintiffs each signed and accepted employment offer letters[1]with Cape Air. Id. ¶¶ 6-29, 52. All of the Plaintiffs-except for Abramov, whom the Court addresses separately below-had obtained “several hundred hours of flight time” prior to being hired by Cape Air, but needed additional hours to become eligible for the ATP practical test. Id. ¶ 53. These Plaintiffs agreed to work as First Officers for at or near the Massachusetts minimum hourly wage. Id. ¶¶ 37, 55; see, e.g., D. 32-1. In exchange for paying the Plaintiffs at a lower hourly rate than the Plaintiffs could otherwise have earned from a different employer, Cape Air “commit[ted] in the offer letters to providing each Plaintiff “the necessary experience to successfully obtain [the Plaintiff's] ATP certificate and qualify [the Plaintiff] as a Captain for Cape Air.” D. 5 ¶¶ 52, 54; see, e.g., D. 32-1. The employment offer letters also required each Plaintiff to work for Cape Air as a Captain for a minimum period after obtaining ATP Certification, ranging between twelve to eighteen months. See, e.g., D. 40-1 (requiring employment as Captain for eighteen months); D. 41-1 (requiring employment as Captain for twelve months); see D. 5 ¶ 56 (alleging that “each of the Plaintiffs agreed to work for Defendant Cape Air as a captain for at least 15 months after attaining ATP certification” (emphasis in original)). These offer letters required any Plaintiff who resigned or was terminated for cause before completing the minimum period as Captain to “repay the reasonable costs and training investment in your training,” which was “acknowledged to be thirty thousand dollars ($30,000).” D. 5 ¶ 57; see, e.g., D. 32-1. The Plaintiffs also each signed a promissory note within few days of accepting their employment offers promising to repay the $30,000 sum, characterized as a “Training Investment,” to Cape Air if they failed to work as Captains for the minimum period. See, e.g., D. 32-3.[2]

As suggested above, Abramov was the only Plaintiff who had already attained 1,500 hours of flight time prior to his employment at Cape Air. D. 5 ¶ 58. Accordingly, Abramov's March 31, 2020 employment offer letter stated that he would be hired as a Captain. D. 34-1. The offer also provided that Abramov would receive “pilot training” at a “substantial” investment and acknowledged Cape Air's “expectation that upon successful completion of [his] training, [Abramov] will serve as a pilot for a minimum of 12 months.” Id. Abramov's offer letter did not mention any requirement that Abramov to repay training costs if he left before the end of the 12-month period. Id. Nearly five months later, on August 28, 2020, Cape Air required Abramov, as it had with other Plaintiffs, to sign a promissory note to repay a $30,000 “Training Investment” if he resigned or was terminated for cause prior to serving as a Captain for twelve months. D. 34-3; D. 5 ¶ 59.

Abramov, Barnes, Mora and Hanson completed ATP certification during their Cape Air employment and began working as Captains (collectively, the “Captain Plaintiffs). D. 5 ¶¶ 7782. Shortly after starting to work, however, the remaining Plaintiffs McClain, Collins, Leblanc, Shepherd, Negrete, Bianca, Morton and Tennant (collectively, the First Officer Plaintiffs) “realized that [Cape Air] did not intend to offer them enough flight hours to become ATP eligible.” Id. ¶ 66. Plaintiffs allege that a comparable Federal Aviation Authority-certified pilot training program offers 80 hours of flight time per month, but that the First Officer Plaintiffs went weeks without receiving flight time or received only a few hours of flight time per month. Id. ¶¶ 67-69. Cape Air also allegedly delayed onboarding the First Officer Plaintiffs and Abramov. Id. ¶ 70. As a result, the First Officer Plaintiffs were not able to complete ATP certification and begin working as Captains. Id. ¶ 75.

Both the Captain and First Officer Plaintiffs resigned from Cape Air prior to completing the minimum required of period of service for Captains. See id. ¶¶ 74-75, 82, 85, 90-91, 121. Cape Air has “demanded” that all Plaintiffs pay the $30,000 training investment. Id. ¶ 74. Only McClain paid Cape Air $30,000 after receiving such demands. Id. ¶ 76.

IV. Procedural History

McClain filed this action on April 29, 2022, D. 1, and subsequently amended his complaint to include his co-Plaintiffs, D. 5. Cape Air has moved to dismiss to all counts, D. 19-D. 30. The Court heard the parties on the pending motions to dismiss and took the matter under advisement. D. 62.

V. Discussion
A. Lack of Jurisdiction Over Claims Preempted by the Railway Labor Act

The Court begins by addressing Cape Air's arguments that Plaintiffs' claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment are preempted by the Railway Labor Act and thus outside this Court's jurisdiction. D. 32 at 15.[3] Under the RLA, “minor” disputes involving “the interpretation or application of existing labor agreements” are subject to mandatory dispute resolution mechanisms. Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 253, 256 (1994); see 45 U.S.C. § 151a (stating that the purpose RLA, among other things, is “to provide for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes growing out...

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