Confining Federal Preemption: The Case of Dan’s City v. Pelkey.

Confining Federal Preemption: The Case of Dan’s City v. Pelkey.

Federal preemption provisions must be read sensibly

Federal preemption provisions must be read sensibly

[This is the second in a series of posts reviewing unheralded but noteworthy decisions for State and local governments from the Supreme Court’s last term. See Koontz here.]

State and local-government attorneys often battle federal preemption—including against broad readings that strain common sense.

The case of Dan’s City Uses Cars, Inc., v . Pelkey reminds you why it’s worth it.

It’s the story of Robert Pelkey.

Pelkey had a bad stretch.

During a snowstorm, he was confined to bed with a serious medical condition.

Pelkey’s apartment building had a policy about moving cars during snowstorms. His car was towed.

Pelkey didn’t know.

Pelkey then went to the hospital for a procedure to amputate his foot. He had a heart attack during the procedure.

Pelkey lived. He recovered.

But he still didn’t know about his car.

Meanwhile, the towing company, Dan’s City, scheduled an auction for the car. When Pelkey finally learned of this, he asked Dan’s to stop—but Dan’s disposed of the car and kept the proceeds.

Pelkey argued that Dan’s violated the New Hampshire Consumer Protection Act.

Dan’s claimed that federal preemption shields it from this consumer protection law.

It argued that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 trumps Pelkey’s state-law protections. The federal law is broad. It states:

“[A] State . . . may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . with respect to the transportation of property.”

49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1). Enacted in 1980, the law accompanies the federal deregulation of the trucking industry—it ensures that States would not undo the federal deregulation by enacting their own rules.

Dan’s claimed that, as a towing company, it qualified as a “motor carrier” that need not comply with State consumer protections.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court disagreed with Dan’s, and ruled for Pelkey. Justice Ginsburg explained that Pelkey’s claims are not “related to” the service of a motor carrier “with respect to the transportation of property.” Instead, the state law regulates vehicle disposal “once their transportation—here, by towing—has ended.” The Court found that Pelkey’s claims were far-removed from Congress’s driving concern: abandoned vehicle laws are not the sort of laws Congress sought to preempt.

Pelkey therefore prevailed—as did a sensible reading of federal preemption.

Although the Court—curiously—did not discuss the presumption against preemption, it did recognize an important interpretive principle that State and local governments may use elsewhere. Dan’s had argued that because this statute has specific exemptions from preemption, and because Pelkey’s claims do not fit within any of them, Pelkey’s claims must be preempted. The Court ruled that this just didn’t make sense:

This argument exceeds sensible bounds. Exceptions to a general rule, while sometimes a helpful interpretive guide, do not in themselves delineate the scope of the rule. The exceptions to § 14501(c)(1)’s general rule of preemption identify matters a State may regulate when it would otherwise be precluded from doing so, but they do not control more than that.


  1. Federal preemption provisions must be read sensibly.
  2. Exemptions to preemption do not control what is preempted generally.
  3. Sometimes the Supreme Court helps the little guy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr by Paul Kehrer