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Appeals court reverses dismissal in Santa Monica case

Reopens question of obligation to keep airport open

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that a district court prematurely dismissed a lawsuit that was brought by the city of Santa Monica to resolve the issue of whether it is obligated to continue operating Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO).

The May 16 decision sends the case back to the federal district court, and reopens the question of whether the property on which the airport is located could revert to the federal government if it ceases to be used as an airport.

“The decision to reverse the dismissal is based on the appeals court’s finding that the record does not definitively establish when the city was aware of the federal government’s disagreement over whether the city remained obligated under a 1948 deed to operate the airport in perpetuity, rather than the merits of the obligations that the city agreed to when the government’s interest in the airport land was deeded back to them,” said Ken Mead, AOPA general counsel. “The district court’s decision was predominantly based on a procedural argument, and the Court of Appeals believes that the district court’s assessment was based on an incomplete record. We are confident that, once the procedural history and the merits of the deed’s language are fully examined, the court will find that Santa Monica is obligated to keep the airport open. The process could be a long one, but AOPA will be there every step of the way.”

Mead noted that the next step will be to send the case back to the federal district court, where more evidence and argument may be presented by the parties to determine whether the city may advance the argument that there should be no restriction on its ability to use the land as it wishes, and whether that argument has any merit.

Santa Monica originally filed the lawsuit in federal district court on Oct. 31, 2013, asking the court to give the city clear title to airport property and challenging the effectiveness and constitutionality of agreements made in the 1940s that require the city to continue to operate the airport.

But in January 2014, the FAA asked the district court to dismiss the case, arguing that the city had 12 years under the Quiet Title Act to bring suit against the federal government once the city learned of the government’s interest in the property. The FAA said more than 65 years had passed since the city reached a property agreement with the federal government, and the city has repeatedly acknowledged the government’s interest in maintaining the land as an airport over the intervening years. The motion also argued that the constitutional claims were “unripe” because they could only be triggered by the government’s action to take control of the airport, events that had not yet taken place.

AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association jointly filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in support of the motion to dismiss. In their filing, the associations focused on the broader implications of releasing the city from its obligations, noting that more than 200 other airports operate under surplus property transfer agreements similar to the one between the federal government and the city of Santa Monica. Those airports include Van Nuys Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport. If other cities were to follow Santa Monica’s lead, the national air transportation system could be devastated, the associations argued.

The district court judge agreed with the FAA’s claims and dismissed the lawsuit. But the city appealed, claiming that the lawsuit was wrongly dismissed on jurisdictional grounds and the court’s application of the statute of limitations. The May 16 decision means the case will have to be reconsidered at the district court level.

“For the people of Santa Monica this means potentially many more years of big legal bills while the city attempts to close and redevelop an airport that’s responsible for creating 1,500 jobs and delivering $275 million in economic output each year,” said Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president for government affairs. “Instead, the city should consider focusing its resources on resolving real problems, like traffic congestion, and let the airport continue to serve the residents of Santa Monica and Southern California.”

Elizabeth Tennyson

Elizabeth A Tennyson

Senior Director of Communications
AOPA Senior Director of Communications Elizabeth Tennyson is an instrument-rated private pilot who first joined AOPA in 1998.

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