Fifth Circuit Rules: Air Carrier Access Act Does Not Provide Private Right of Action


On April 5, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided Stokes v. Southwest Airlines, 887 F.3d 199 (5th Cir. 2018), which expressly overruled precedent set nearly thirty years ago in Shinault v. American Airlines, Inc., 936 F.2d 796, 800 (5th Cir. 1991), by holding that the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) does not confer a private right of action for disability discrimination against an air carrier.

In its Stokes opinion, the Fifth Circuit describes the history of the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolving jurisprudence concerning the construction of statutes that do not expressly provide a private right of action. The Stokes court notes that during the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court routinely inferred private rights of action from silent statutory text, employing the now-abandoned maxim that “‘a statutory right implies the existence of all necessary and appropriate remedies.’” 887 F.3d at 201 (quoting Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843, 1855 (2017)). However, as the Fifth Circuit explains, the Supreme Court’s approach has since evolved, culminating in its decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), which now defines the proper method to determine if a private right of action exists. Under Sandoval, courts must interpret the statute as enacted by Congress, consulting the statute’s text and structure to identify the existence of a private right of action. Stokes, 887 F.3d at 202. The Fifth Circuit went on to confirm that, absent affirmative intent to allow private civil suits, there can be no private right of action—no matter how desirable it might be as a policy matter. Id.

Applying Sandoval’s guidance to the ACAA, the Court holds that the ACAA creates a comprehensive administrative scheme designed to vindicate the rights of disabled persons, but  notably absent from the statutory scheme is the creation of a private right to sue in a federal district court. To the contrary, the Court concludes, Congress’ creation of a detailed administrative enforcement mechanism in the ACAA necessarily excludes a private remedy that is absent from the statute’s text.

In order to hold that the ACAA does not confer a private cause of action, the Stokes court had to address the Fifth Circuit’s rule of orderliness. Under the rule of orderliness, the Fifth Circuit’s prior decision in Shinault v. American Airlines, Inc., 936 F.2d 796,800 (5th Cir. 1991), holding that a private right of action existed under the ACAA, could not be overturned by another panel of the Fifth Circuit unless there was an intervening change in the law. The Stokes court concludes that Sandoval constitutes such an intervening change in the law, that Sandoval “abrogated” the Shinault decision, and that Shinault “no longer states the law” in the Fifth Circuit.

The Stokes decision is timely. For years, Texas courts have struggled to reconcile the Shinault decision with Sandoval and subsequent decisions from the Second, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits holding that no private cause of action exists under the ACAA. The Stokes  decision aligns the Fifth Circuit with controlling Supreme Court precedent on statutory construction concerning private causes of action, as well as the decisions of sister circuits holding that the ACAA does not provide a private right of action.

The Jackson Walker team representing Southwest Airlines Co. was Katherine A. StatonSean D. JordanRobert M. Cohan, and Andrew P. Valencia.