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Taylor v. Federal Aviation Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 9, 2019

ROBERT C. TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta, United States District Court Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Robert Taylor is a model aircraft enthusiast who owns multiple model planes that he uses for hobby and recreational purposes. He seeks damages on behalf of himself and all model aircraft owners who paid $5.00 to register their aircraft with Defendant Federal Aviation Administration under a rule later struck down by the D.C. Circuit and then reinstated by statute. Plaintiff demands that the agency return more than $4 million in registration fees and pay more than $836 million in statutory penalties. This court previously found Plaintiff lacked standing to sue but allowed him to amend his complaint to cure this defect. The court now dismisses Plaintiff's Amended Complaint for the same reason, and for the additional reason that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim. Defendants' second Motion to Dismiss is therefore granted.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The court detailed the factual and procedural background of this case in its previous decision, and it need not repeat that discussion at length here. See Taylor v. FAA (“Taylor”), 351 F.Supp.3d 97 (D.D.C. 2018). To summarize, Plaintiff brings this action on behalf of himself and a putative class of all model aircraft owners who, pursuant to a Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) rule, paid $5.00 to register their aircraft with the agency. For ease of reference, the court refers to this requirement as the “Registration Rule.” The D.C. Circuit held that the FAA lacked the statutory authority to adopt the Registration Rule and compel model aircraft owners to register their aircraft. See Taylor v. Huerta (“Huerta”), 856 F.3d 1089 (D.C. Cir. 2017). Congress later passed legislation reinstating the Registration Rule. See Taylor, 351 F.Supp.3d at 100.

         In his original complaint, Plaintiff claimed that, by adopting the Registration Rule without statutory authority, the FAA violated the Privacy Act (Count I) and the Little Tucker Act (Count II). He also claimed that the FAA's obtaining his personal information violated his constitutional right of privacy (Count III), and its collecting a $5.00 fee unjustly enriched the agency (Count IV). See Taylor, 351 F.Supp.3d at 99. The court dismissed Plaintiff's original complaint, holding that Plaintiff lacked standing to sue. Id. at 99. The court gave Plaintiff the opportunity to amend, see id. at 106, and Plaintiff did so, alleging the same four claims, plus an additional claim for declaratory relief, see Pl.'s Am. Compl. and Demand for Jury Trial, ECF No. 31 [hereinafter Am. Compl.].

         Defendants have once more moved to dismiss, arguing that Plaintiff still lacks standing despite adding new allegations. Defendants also renew their arguments that the D.C. Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over some of the claims, and that Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl., ECF No. 36, Mem. in Supp. of Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 36-1 [hereinafter Defs.' Mem.], at 2.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Standing

         A plaintiff in federal court must show that he meets the “irreducible constitutional minimum” of Article III standing: (1) injury in fact, (2) causation, and (3) redressability. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). At the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff “must state a plausible claim that [she has] suffered an injury in fact fairly traceable to the actions of the defendant that is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision on the merits.” Food & Water Watch Inc. v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905, 913 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Humane Soc'y of the U.S. v. Vilsack, 797 F.3d 4, 8 (D.C. Cir. 2015)). The court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual contentions and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom, but it need not accept threadbare recitals of the elements of standing or legal conclusions couched as factual averments. See Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

         1. Injury in Fact

         The court begins with injury in fact. To satisfy this requirement, plaintiff must show that his alleged injury was both “concrete and particularized, ” as well as “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 180 (2000); see also Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560 (same). In the class-action context, named plaintiffs “must allege and show that they personally have been injured, not that injury has been suffered by other, unidentified members of the class to which they belong and which they purport to represent.” Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 502 (1975) (emphasis added).

         In his original Complaint, Plaintiff specified two forms of injury in fact: (1) the lost opportunity to use the $5.00 registration fee during the period that the FAA lacked the authority to collect such fees; and (2) the “intangible harm” of the FAA's wrongful maintenance of his personal information. See Taylor, 351 F.Supp.3d at 102. In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff persists in his allegation that he suffered injury in fact from the lost “time value and opportunity value” of the $5.00 registration fee, as well as the loss of the $5.00 itself. See Am. Comp. ¶¶ 41-42. He has also modified his claimed injury arising from the FAA's alleged Privacy Act violation. Where Plaintiff previously insisted that he suffered the “intangible harm of Defendants' unlawful maintenance of his personal information, ” Taylor, 351 F.Supp.3d at 102, he now argues that, “as a result of the FAA's Privacy Act violation . . . Plaintiff suffered pecuniary harm when the FAA unlawfully deprived him of the $5.00 registration fee, ” a loss that “encompasses the fee itself in addition to the use and value of the registration fee, including the opportunity to invest the funds to increase their value, ” See Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 38 [hereinafter Pl.'s Opp'n.], at 10 (emphasis added). Plaintiff's theory of injury under the Privacy Act-his primary cause of action-thus has shifted from “intangible harm, ” see Taylor, 351 F.Supp.3d at 102, to “pecuniary harm, ” see Am. Compl. ¶¶ 40-41. Plaintiff's recasted “pecuniary harm” does not satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.

         a. The $5.00 registration fee

         Ordinarily, the loss of even a small amount of money would satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement. See Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., 580 U.S. ___, ___, 137 S.Ct. 973, 983 (2017) (“For standing purposes, a loss of even a small amount of money is ordinarily an ‘injury.'”); Carpenters Indus. Council v. Zinke, 854 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (“A dollar of economic harm is still an injury-in-fact for standing purposes.”). But not so for this plaintiff. That is because “standing is assessed as of the time a suit commences, ” Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. v. United States, 570 F.3d 316, 324 (D.C. Cir. 2009), and at the time he filed this action, Plaintiff had suffered no harm from his payment of the $5.00 registration fee.

         On December 12, 2017, Congress “restored to effect” the Registration Rule that the D.C. Circuit vacated in Taylor v. Huerta. Am. Compl. ¶ 18. That included payment of the $5.00 registration fee. See 14 C.F.R. § 48.30. After Congress acted, the FAA advised model aircraft owners that, “[i]f you are a model aircraft owner who registered prior to December 12, 2017 and did not request to have your registration information deleted, the FAA has extended the expiration date until December 12, 2020, which is 3 years from the rule restoration date.”[1] In other words, the FAA renewed all already-registered model aircraft for a three-year period starting from the date of the Registration Rule's restoration. Thus, by the time Plaintiff commenced this action in January 2018, he had received what he had paid for: a lawful registration of a model aircraft with the FAA. The paid $5.00 registration fee therefore did not constitute an injury in fact at the time he initiated this action.

         To fend off this conclusion, Plaintiff alleges he is “not currently automatically required to register Model Aircraft or pay a registration fee, ” and that he “may also have opted to not reregister and pay the fee.” Am. Compl. ¶¶ 21, 42. The first contention is a legal conclusion, and the court does not assume the truth of such allegations. See Arpaio, 797 F.3d at 19. The second contention is not a fact assertion at all. Plaintiff simply states that he “may” have opted not to reregister his aircraft. Am. Compl. ¶ 42. Such an assertion hardly qualifies as a well-pleaded factual allegation.

         Plaintiff also states in his opposition that he “is not obligated to register Model Aircraft because he has not, nor has he alleged, to have operated Model Aircraft after” Congress reinstated the Registration Rule. Pl.'s Opp'n at 37. But that assertion nowhere appears in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. Plaintiff, of course, cannot amend his pleading through an opposition to a motion to dismiss. See Middlebrooks v. Godwin Corp., 722 F.Supp.2d 82, 87 n.4 (D.D.C. 2010). In any event, as discussed below, Plaintiff cannot manufacture injury, and thereby establish standing, by purposely refraining from operating model aircraft, while making no effort to recoup his registration fee.

         b. Lost time value of the ...


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