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Supreme Court to hear frequent-flier complaint

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 2:43 PM EDT, Mon May 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Minnesota rabbi was a frequent flier on Northwest Airlines
  • Carrier said he logged too many complaints and dropped his loyalty account
  • Court to hear jurisdictional issue stemming from law that deregulated airlines

Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court will hear the case of a frequent flier labeled a frequent complainer by one airline.

Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg claims his WorldPerks Platinum Elite membership was revoked after being told he had "abused" his privileges, repeatedly filing complaints for upgrades and other benefits.

Northwest Airlines, which was consumed by Delta Air Lines in a 2008 merger, said it had "sole judgment" over the program's general terms and conditions to make such determinations.

At issue is whether Ginsberg has a right under state law to bring his case or whether it is preempted by the 1970s-era law that deregulated the airline industry.

That law prohibits parties from bringing similar state claims against airlines relating to a "price, route, or service" of the carrier.

Ginsberg is dean of Torah Academy in Minneapolis and travels frequently to lecture and teach.

He joined Northwest's WorldPerks frequent flier program in 1999 and reached Platinum Elite status in 2005.

But in June of 2008, Ginsberg claimed a Northwest representative called him and told him his status was being revoked on grounds that he "abused" the program, according to court papers.

Ginsberg said the airline also took away the hundreds of thousands of miles accumulated in his account.

"It didn't make sense. Initially, when they contacted me on the phone I thought it was a prank call," Ginsberg told CNN. "When I pushed for a reason and clarification, they told me it was because I was complaining too much."

A month after that call, Northwest sent the rabbi a letter noting that he had made 24 complaints in the past eight months, including nine incidents of his bag arriving late at the luggage carousel, according to court papers.

"You have continually asked for compensation over and above our guidelines. We have awarded you $1,925 in travel credit vouchers, 78,500 WorldPerks bonus miles, a voucher extension for your son, and $491 in cash reimbursements," the letter said, according to court papers.

"Due to our past generosity, we must respectfully advise that we will no longer be awarding you compensation each time you contact us."

Ginsberg's lawyers countered the rabbi and his wife had been averaging about 75 flights on Northwest each year, and that Ginsberg estimated that only about 10 percent of the trips had resulted in a call to Northwest's customer care.

"I don't think I was a frequent complainer," Ginsberg said. "They should have taken their time and analyzed: Were my complaints legitimate? Should they be doing something to improve their service and quality of product? Instead of worrying, we've got to shut up somebody who is complaining too much."

Later that fall, Northwest sent Ginsberg an e-mail, in which the airline quoted a paragraph from the fine print of the WorldPerks Program.

It stated that Northwest could determine "in its sole judgment" whether a passenger has abused the program, and that abuse "may result in cancellation of the member's account and future disqualification from program participation, forfeiture of all mileage accrued and cancellation of previously issued but unused awards."

Ginsberg sued for $5 million over a breach of contract in January 2009, but a federal judge in San Diego dismissed the class action suit, agreeing with Northwest that the Airline Deregulation Act preempted his claim.

The airline's lawyers also argued that the WorldPerks general terms and conditions did not require Northwest to provide frequent fliers with lengthy explanations or reasons for its decision to terminate or demote a member's status in the program.

But in 2011, a federal appeals court in San Francisco reversed, ordered it to reconsider Ginsberg's class action claims. It said that when Congress passed the deregulation law, it did not intend to "immunize the airline industry from liability for common law contract claims."

There was no immediate comment from Delta to the high court accepting its appeal.

Ginsberg -- who is still a frequent flier, but is no longer loyal to any one airline -- said he is hoping to get his miles back, have his status reinstated, and get fair compensation for what he's gone through.

"To me, it's outright fraud. You can't take somebody's mileage away when they've accumulated it," he said. "We live in a country that was built on freedom and this to me is a tremendous abuse of freedom."

The case is Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg (12-462).

CNN's A. Pawlowski contributed to this report.

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