Riggs v. Burson, M-H

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtANDERSON; BIRCH
Citation941 S.W.2d 44
PartiesBobby RIGGS andelicopters of Tennessee, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Charles W. BURSON, Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter, Carl Johnson, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Defendants-Appellants.
Docket NumberM-H
Decision Date10 March 1997

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941 S.W.2d 44
Bobby RIGGS and M-Helicopters of Tennessee, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
Charles W. BURSON, Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter,
Carl Johnson, Commissioner of the Tennessee
Department of Transportation,
Defendants-Appellants.
Supreme Court of Tennessee,
at Knoxville.
March 10, 1997.
Rehearing Denied April 7, 1997.

Charles W. Burson, Attorney General and Reporter, Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General, Barry Turner, Deputy Attorney General, Nashville, for Defendants-Appellants.

Steven E. Marshall, Marshall & Delius, Sevierville, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

OPINION

ANDERSON, Justice.

We granted this appeal to decide whether a state statute 1 prohibiting the use of land for a heliport within nine miles of the boundary of a national park is constitutional and, if so, whether it is preempted by federal law.

The trial court held the statute was constitutional and was a regulation of the use of land and therefore was not preempted by the Federal Aviation Act. The court, therefore, dismissed the plaintiffs' action to enjoin enforcement of the statute. The Court of Appeals reversed, deciding that it must accept as true the complaint's legal conclusions as to preemption and constitutionality, and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing.

For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the state statute does not violate due process or equal protection under the Tennessee or United States Constitutions; does not suspend general law in violation of the Tennessee Constitution; and is not preempted by federal law. We have further determined that in addressing the motion to dismiss, the trial court was not required to accept as true the plaintiffs' asserted legal conclusions that the law lacked a rational basis and was preempted.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the judgment of the trial court is reinstated.

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BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs, Bobby Riggs and M-Helicopters of Tennessee, Inc., own and operate a heliport in Sevier County, Tennessee, from which they launch helicopters which carry tourists to, over, and from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The heliport is located within nine miles of the boundary of the national park.

In early 1992, the Tennessee legislature enacted Tenn.Code Ann. § 42-8-101, et seq., which prohibited the helicopter touring operations of the plaintiffs after July 1, 1994. In June of 1994, the plaintiffs filed a declaratory action in the Sevier County Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of the statute, which provides in part:

42-8-102. Certain land not to be used as heliport--Heliports on such land.--(a) Land in a tourist resort county within nine (9) miles of the boundary of a national park established pursuant to 16 U.S.C. § 403 cannot be used as a heliport.

....

42-8-103. Violations--Heliport deemed nuisance--Abatement, removal, conformity.--Notwithstanding the provisions of § 13-7-208 or any other law to the contrary, a heliport operating as of April 23, 1992, that is in violation of § 42-8-102(a) is declared a public nuisance and shall be abated, removed or changed to conform with this chapter by July 1, 1994.....

(Emphasis added).

The plaintiffs alleged that the statute violated due process and equal protection under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions; that it suspended general law in violation of article XI, section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution; and that it was preempted by the Federal Aviation Act. The plaintiffs also argued that they were permitted to maintain a non-conforming use pursuant to Tenn.Code Ann. § 13-7-208(b). The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

After reviewing the statute and its preamble, and hearing arguments from both parties, the trial court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint. The trial court found that the statute did not violate the Tennessee or United States Constitutions; that it was a regulation of the use of land that was not preempted by federal law; and that the plaintiffs were not entitled to relief under Tenn.Code Ann. § 13-7-208(b) as a non-conforming use.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals apparently accepted the plaintiffs' conclusory legal allegations as true and held:

[t]he allegations of the complaint set forth the elements for claims of preemption, due process and equal protection, and an unconstitutional suspension of general law. Our decision is not to be construed to say the statutes are free or not free of constitutional defects. We are remanding the case for the parties to be afforded the opportunity to introduce any evidence which is material and pertinent in considering the validity of the statute.

We granted the defendants' appeal to address the constitutionality of the statute, the federal preemption question, and to clarify the standard to be applied by a court in addressing a motion to dismiss a complaint which contains conclusory assertions that a statute is unconstitutional.

MOTION TO DISMISS

The first question we must address is the standard to be applied by a court in addressing a motion to dismiss a complaint which contains legal conclusions. We begin our analysis by examining the purpose of a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Such a motion pursuant to Tenn.R.Civ.P. 12.02(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint; it admits the truth of all relevant and material allegations, "but asserts that such facts do not constitute a cause of action as a matter of law." Pursell v. First American National Bank et al., 937 S.W.2d 838 (Tenn.1996)(emphasis added).

In ruling on such a motion, courts must construe the allegations in the plaintiff's favor and accept allegations of fact as true. However, the inferences to be drawn

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from the facts or the legal conclusions set forth in a complaint are not required to be taken as true. Dobbs v. Guenther, 846 S.W.2d 270, 273 (Tenn.App.1992).

The plaintiffs' allegations that the statute violated due process and equal protection under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and suspended general law in violation of the Tennessee Constitution were legal conclusions that should not have been taken as true. As recognized by both parties, these constitutional issues required a determination of whether the legislature had a rational basis for passing the statute. In this regard, if any reasonable justification for the law may be conceived, it must be upheld by the courts. State v. Tester, 879 S.W.2d 823, 830 (Tenn.1994); see Newton v. Cox, 878 S.W.2d 105, 110 (Tenn.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 869, 115 S.Ct. 189, 130 L.Ed.2d 122 (1994).

Here, the trial court correctly applied this analysis in the context of the defendant's motion to dismiss under Tenn.R.Civ.P. 12.02(6). In Lilly v. Smith, 790 S.W.2d 539 (Tenn.App.1990), for example, the plaintiff raised an equal protection challenge to the State's grade policy for admission into state nursing schools. The trial court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss under Rule 12.02(6). The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal upon finding that there was a "rational relationship between the admissions requirement and legitimate state policy."

Likewise, the plaintiffs' assertion that the statute was preempted by the Federal Aviation Act was a legal conclusion that should not have been accepted as true. Whether a federal law expressly or implicitly preempts a state law requires an investigation of Congress's intent in passing federal legislation. See Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 515-16, 112 S.Ct. 2608, 2617, 120 L.Ed.2d 407 (1992). Here, both parties argued their interpretations of the Federal Aviation Act and offered supporting legal authority for whether the Act expressly or implicitly preempted the statute. The trial court properly addressed the preemption issue in the context of the motion to dismiss, without an evidentiary hearing. See e.g., Broyde v. Gotham Tower, Inc., 13 F.3d 994 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1128, 114 S.Ct. 2137, 128 L.Ed.2d 866 (1994).

Accordingly, we conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in accepting the legal conclusions in the plaintiffs' complaint as true and in remanding the case for an evidentiary hearing, and that the trial court acted correctly in addressing all the legal issues in the motion to dismiss.

PREEMPTION

The preemption doctrine stems from the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution: "[t]he Constitution and laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof ... shall be the supreme Law of the Land." U.S. Const., art. VI, cl. 2. A state law which conflicts with federal law, therefore, is preempted or "without effect." See Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746, 101 S.Ct. 2114, 2128, 68 L.Ed.2d 576 (1981).

The plaintiffs charged that Tenn.Code Ann. § 42-8-101, et seq., is aimed at the "flight of aircraft and aircraft noise" and is therefore preempted by the Federal Aviation Act. See 49 U.S.C. § 40101-41901 (Supp.1996). 2 The defendants maintained, and the trial court found, that the statute is not preempted because it relates to the use of land and not the flight of aircraft. The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the elements of a preemption claim had been alleged and that an evidentiary hearing was required to determine whether the statute is directed at aircraft noise.

Consideration of preemption issues under the Supremacy Clause "start[s] with the assumption that the historic police powers of the States [are] not to be superseded by ... Federal Act unless that [is] the clear and manifest purpose of Congress." Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230, 67 S.Ct. 1146, 1152, 91 L.Ed. 1447 (1947).

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The purpose of Congress in enacting a federal law is, therefore, the "ultimate touchstone" of preemption analysis. Retail Clerks Intern. Ass'n v. Schermerhorn, ...

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