Court Case of the Week

Normally the DC Circuit Court of Appeals hears important cases involving the reach and scope of the powers of the administrative state, and last week’s decision in Wallaesa v. FAA is no exception, except that the facts of the case are laughable while reminding us how much we love flying:

On November 6, 2009, Wallaesa, a passenger on Southwest Airlines flight 3049 from Baltimore to Las Vegas, struck up a conversation in the boarding line with a female passenger, Jaime T. Once onboard, Jaime sat in the third row aisle seat on the captain’s side.1 Wallaesa joined her, taking the window seat. After another passenger took the middle seat, Wallaesa switched seats with him. Before lifting off, the crew delivered the by-now familiar safety briefing, instructing passengers to keep their seatbelts fastened while the fasten seatbelt sign was illuminated and to follow crewmember instructions. See 14 C.F.R. § 121.571 (specifying requirements for pre-flight safety briefings).

What began as innocuous “plane chatter” between Wallaesa and Jaime fast became an annoyance. Amicus Curiae Appendix (A.A.) 143. Wallaesa asked questions, and Jaime “parried with polite attempts to end the conversation.” Id. at 7. Trying to tune him out, Jaime put on headphones and opened a book. Wallaesa did not take the hint. He tapped her on the shoulder and asked whether she would mind if he put his arm around her. She did mind, telling him “that is weird and uncomfortable,” and that she had a boyfriend. Id. at 144.

Not long after, Wallaesa again tapped Jaime’s shoulder. He wanted to ask a “corny” question. Id. at 146. She told him not to ask, reminding him that she had a boyfriend. Wallaesa asked anyway, wanting to know whether he could “hold something beautiful today.” Id. Jaime told him he crossed the line. She got up and exchanged seats with a passenger across the aisle in the middle seat of row two. She also flagged down a flight attendant, Wendy Moorman, and relayed what happened.

Moorman brought Wallaesa to the back of the plane. She explained that his behavior made Jaime uncomfortable. Wallaesa expressed surprise. He told Moorman that he loved Jaime, “and that she was the one for him.” Id. at 194. Moorman told him to take his seat and not to talk to Jaime again. Wallaesa complied with the first instruction, returning to his seat. But a few minutes later, he was back up, walking across the aisle to speak to Jaime. Moorman brought him to the back of the plane a second time, again instructing him not to speak to her. Tearful and upset, Wallaesa returned to his seat. Soon, the same pattern repeated itself: Wallaesa left his seat to talk to Jaime, Moorman intercepted him, and brought him to the back. She reiterated her earlier instructions. Wallaesa appeared angry, his eyes wide with agitation. Moorman decided to reseat him, having him switch places with passengers in row eighteen.

About an hour away from Las Vegas, the captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign in anticipation of turbulence. He likewise instructed the flight attendants to take their seats. Moorman fastened her seatbelt in the front of the aircraft. Another flight attendant, Robert Dumond, took his seat in the back. A short time later, Wallaesa stood up and walked briskly to the front of the aircraft. Unfastening his seat belt, Dumond chased after him. Moorman did the same from the front. They caught up with him around aisle five. Dumond grabbed his arm, telling him he needed to sit down. “I want to talk to her,” Wallaesa replied. Id. at 246.

Taking him to the front, the flight attendants asked him multiple times to return to his seat, noting that everyone— crew included—had to remain seated with seatbelts fastened. Wallaesa refused each request. Dumond would later explain that the confrontation had become a “security situation.” Id. at 248. Flight attendants are trained to protect the cockpit, which was only steps away from the ongoing standoff. Those security protocols in mind, Dumond stood with his back to the cockpit door.

Moorman called the captain, who asked whether she needed to summon an FBI Special Agent onboard who had earlier identified himself to the crew. Moorman said she needed the help. She waved to FBI Agent James Mollica, who came forward to assist. Introducing himself as a law enforcement officer, Agent Mollica asked Wallaesa to follow the flight attendant’s instructions to return to his seat. Unfazed, Wallaesa refused to go back until he could talk to Jaime.

Agent Mollica upped the ante, telling Wallaesa that he could do this the easy way or the hard way: the hard way, he said, would involve handcuffs. Wallaesa said he did not care: he simply had to speak with Jaime. Having chosen the hard way, Agent Mollica handcuffed him. The flight attendants cleared a row of seats, moving the occupants elsewhere. Meanwhile, Wallaesa began yelling that he loved Jaime, blaming the crew for keeping him from her.

Eventually he stopped yelling. Agent Mollica walked Wallaesa toward the cleared row of seats. But Wallaesa would not sit down, leaning back against Agent Mollica’s body. Agent Mollica overpowered him, pushing his body onto the seats. By the time Wallaesa was finally subdued, roughly twenty-five minutes remained until touchdown. Once on the ground, law enforcement officials met the plane at the gate.

I’ll bet they did. Somehow, Wallaesa thought he could successfully challenge the fine the FAA subsequently levied against him. He lost.