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Wallis v. The Boeing Co.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

October 7, 2019

Liam Wallis, Plaintiff,
The Boeing Company, Anthony Timms, and Monica Williams Defendants.



         This matter comes before the court on Defendants partial motions to dismiss (Dkt. Nos. 5, 16.) For the reasons below, this Court denies the motions as moot and remands this case to state court as the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Liam Wallis filed this case in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas on March 18, 2019. (Dkt. No. 1-1.) Plaintiff alleges, generally, that he was employed by Defendant The Boeing Company ("Boeing") as a Quality Assurance Conformity Manager ("QACM") since 2011. (Dkt. No. 12 at ¶ 8.) After sustaining an injury in August 2016, Plaintiff alleges that he took medical leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act. (Id. at ¶ 17.) Upon return from medical leave, Plaintiff alleges that he learned that a new supervisor had been disregarding Boeing safety policies while he was out on leave. (Id. at ¶¶ 23 - 24.) Plaintiff alleges that when he attempted to inform his managers about the policy violations, he was told not to write-up any of the alleged violations. (Id. at ¶¶ 25 - 28.) Plaintiff alleges that he brought further safety violations to Boeing's attention during 2017 and he was ultimately terminated on June 15, 2017 for refusing to conceal alleged safety violations. (Id. at ¶¶ 29 - 41.)

         Plaintiffs complaint brings three causes of action. First, Plaintiff brings a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, based on his alleged termination for reporting safety violations. (Id. at ¶¶ 51 - 55.) Second, Plaintiff brings a claim for civil conspiracy against his supervisors, relying on the same facts related to Defendants' alleged attempt to conceal safety violations. (Mat¶¶ 56-60.) Finally, Plaintiff brings a claim for unpaid wages, unrelated to the wrongful termination or civil conspiracy claim, alleging that Plaintiff worked in excess of forty hours per week, was not an exempt executive or administrative employee, and was not paid overtime. (Id. at ¶¶ 9 - 10, 61 - 65.)

         Defendants removed the case to this Court on April 16, 2019. (Dkt. No. 1.) Defendants claim federal question jurisdiction, alleging that Plaintiffs claim for unpaid wages arises under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and that Plaintiffs claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy is preempted by the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century ("AIR 21 Act"), 49 U.S.C. § 42121. (Id.) Defendants subsequently moved to dismiss the claims for wrongful termination and civil conspiracy, alleging the wrongful termination claims are inappropriate as Plaintiff has a remedy under the AIR 21 Act, and separately that Plaintiff has failed to make out a claim for civil conspiracy. (Dkt. Nos. 5, 16.) Plaintiff opposes the motions, and Defendants filed replies.[1] (Dkt. Nos. 13, 15, 27, 28.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Strawn v. AT & T Mobility LLC, 530 F.3d 293, 296 (4th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). Federal removal jurisdiction exists if the action is one "of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A defendant removing a case to federal court bears the burden of establishing that federal jurisdiction is proper. Strawn, 530 F.3d at 296 (citations omitted). The existence of federal jurisdiction is determined at the time the defendant files his notice of removal. See Pullman Co. v. Jenkins, 305 U.S. 534, 537 (1939) (citations omitted). The removal statute is strictly construed against removal jurisdiction, and any doubts as to jurisdiction weigh in favor of remand. In re Blackwater Sec. Consulting, LLC, 460 F.3d 576, 583 (4th Cir. 2006).

         III. Discussion

         As the Fourth Circuit held:

In the case where remand is based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the remand order may be entered at any time, for jurisdiction goes to the very power of the court to act. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c); Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998). In addition, because the lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be noticed by the district court sua sponte or by any party see Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 506, 126 S.Ct. 1235, 163 L.Ed.2d 1097 (2006); Caterpillar Inc. v. Lewis, 519 U.S. 61, 69, 117 S.Ct. 467, 136 L.Ed.2d 437 (1996), the court may enter a remand order sua sponte.

Ellenburg v. Spartan Motors Chassis, Inc., 519 F.3d 192, 196 (4th Cir. 2008). See also 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) ("If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded."). The Court therefore assesses whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction[2] for any of the three claims brought by Plaintiff against Defendants.

         The Court has no federal question jurisdiction over the Plaintiffs first cause of action for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. As both Parties acknowledge, South Carolina recognizes a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, "[w]here the retaliatory discharge of an at-will employee constitutes [a] violation of a clear mandate of public policy, a cause of action in tort for wrongful discharge arises." Ludwick v. This Minute of Carolina, Inc., 287 S.C. 219, 225, 337 S.E.2d 213, 216 (1985). However, the public policy exception to at-will employment does not exist in "situations where the employee has an existing statutory remedy for wrongful termination." Barron v. Labor Finders of S.C, 393 S.C. 609, 615, 713 S.E.2d 634, 637 (2011). Therefore, Defendants argue in their notice of removal that since the AIR 21 Act, 49 U.S.C. § 42121, a federal statute, provides Plaintiff with a remedy, federal question jurisdiction is appropriate. (Dkt. No. 1 at 4.) Defendants' statement is misplaced.

         As is well settled, "federal question jurisdiction is governed by the 'well-pleaded complaint rule,' which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiffs properly pleaded complaint...." Harless v. CSX Hotels, Inc., 389 F.3d 444, 450 (4th Cir. 2004). Defendants' argument that the Air 21 Act provides Plaintiff with a statutory remedy, preventing Plaintiff from making out a claim for violation of public policy, serves as a possible defense to Plaintiffs claim. However, "a case may not be removed to federal court on the basis of a federal defense, including the defense of pre-emption, even if the defense is anticipated in the plaintiffs complaint, and even if both parties concede that the federal defense is the only question truly at issue." Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams,482 U.S. 386, 393, 107 S.Ct. 2425, 2430 (1987). The only instance where a defense of preemption confers federal question jurisdiction is under the "complete preemption" doctrine where "the preemptive force of a statute is so 'extraordinary' that it 'converts an ordinary state common-law complaint into one stating a federal claim...."' Id. Here, however, the Air 21 Act is does not preempt any possible wrongful termination in violation of ...

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