The Rabbi, the Airline, and the Supreme Court

March 3, 2014

Got miles? No, not milk, miles!

The U.S. Supreme Court has before it for a decision Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg. The case was argued on December 3, 2013, and will almost surely be decided by the end of the Court’s 2013-14 Term.

Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg got fired from the Northwest Airlines frequent-flyer program for calling too often and complaining too much. No more miles, so he sued.

The case involves the Airline Deregulation Act, as amended as recently as 1994. Basically, the law preempts, or bars, claims brought by individuals that relate to “a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation … .” Rabbi Ginsberg sued, claiming Northwest breached its contract with him by cancelling his frequent-flier membership and taking away his miles. He argued that “price, route, or service” issues do not embody frequent-flyer miles. The trial court dismissed Rabbi Ginsberg’s case, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

Nina Totenberg put together a great story, A Supreme Court Fight for the Rights of (Frequent) Fliers, broadcast just before the oral argument. Here’s New York Times reporter Adam Liptak’s take, after the argument:  Supreme Court Considers Frequent Flier Contracts. And, here’s everything you might want to know about this matter, from SCOTUSblog:  Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg.

Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg matters, both because it interprets a complicate aspect of contractual relations between airlines and their passenger/customers, and because it begs basic questions about contracts, to wit:  to have a contract must each side have rights and the opportunity to receive benefits; can one side unilaterally cancel a contract; etc?

On the other hand, has anyone reading this piece ever had a frequent-flyer account unilaterally cancelled? Know anyone who has faced a unilateral “firing?” When I read about these situations I do wonder:  Are there people who are simply looking for trouble? People who want to pick a fight with a large, well-financed, “lawyered-up” organization? Sorry, but I’ll suffer an indignity here or there before I go looking for this fight!

Full disclosure:  In the records of the Pima County Justice Court, you’ll find a case titled Rubin v. American Airlines, Inc. I believe it was filed in 1995—I was young then—and it related to a damaged laptop computer. American Airlines hired a local attorney, who called me up and said:

“They’ll pay me plenty of money, you’ll lose on account of preemption, and then you’ll pay them what they paid me. Here are the cases and statutes you should read, and I can hold off for about a week or so.”

I’m not sure about what preemption law the attorney was referring to, and it doesn’t matter now. The attorney has passed on, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He saved me thousands (and cost himself some easy fees and a victory), and I put some part of those saved moneys to use purchasing a newer, better computer. Since then, I’ve also never checked a bag with anything in it that can’t be “folded, spindled, or mutilated,” and people of a certain age will catch the reference!


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