The Standards Applied.

As might be expected from the caveat just quoted, any overview of the Court’s preemption decisions can only make the field seem tangled, and to some extent it is. But some threads may be extracted.

Express Preemption. Of course, it is possible for Congress to write preemptive language that clearly and cleanly prescribes or does not prescribe displacement of state laws in an area.1172 Provisions governing preemption can be relatively interpretation free,1173 and the Court has recognized that certain statutory language can guide the interpretation.1174 For example, a prohibition of state taxes on carriage of air passengers “or on the gross receipts derived therefrom” was held to preempt a state tax on airlines, described by the state as a personal property tax, but based on a percentage of the airline’s gross income. “The manner in which the state legislature has described and categorized [the tax] cannot mask the fact that the purpose and effect of the provision are to impose a levy upon the gross receipts of airlines.”1175

But, more often than not, express preemptive language may be ambiguous or at least not free from conflicting interpretation. Thus, the Court was divided with respect to whether a provision of the Airline Deregulation Act proscribing the states from having and enforcing laws “relating to rates, routes, or services of any air carrier” applied to displace state consumer-protection laws regulating airline fare advertising.1176 Delimiting the scope of an exception in an express preemption provision can also present challenges. For example, the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 (IRCA), which imposed the first comprehensive federal sanctions against employing aliens not authorized to work in the United States, pre-empted “any State or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws) upon those who employ unauthorized aliens.”1177 In Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting, a majority of the Court adopted a straightforward “plain meaning” approach to uphold a 2007 Arizona law that called for the suspension or revocation of the business licenses (including articles of incorporation and like documents) of Arizona employers found to have knowingly hired an unauthorized alien.1178 By contrast, two dissenting opinions were troubled that the Arizona sanction was far more severe than that authorized for similar violations under either federal law or state laws in force prior to IRCA. The dissents interpreted IRCA’s “licensing and similar laws” language narrowly to cover only businesses that primarily recruit or refer workers for employment, or businesses that have been found by federal authorities to have violated federal sanctions, respectively.1179

At issue in AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion1180 was a savings provision of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) that made arbitration provisions in contracts “valid, irrevocable and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.”1181 An arbitration provision in their cellular telephone contract forbade plaintiffs from seeking arbitration of an allegedly fraudulent practice by AT&T on a class basis. The Court closely divided over whether the FAA saving clause made this anti-class arbitration provision attackable under California law against class action waivers in consumer contracts, or whether the savings clause looked solely to grounds for revoking the cellular contract that had nothing to do with the arbitration provision.1182 Another case focused on a preemption clause that preempted certain laws of “a State [or] political subdivision of a State” regulating motor carriers, but excepted “[State] safely regulatory authority.” The Court interpreted the exception to allow a safety regulation adopted by a city: “[a]bsent a clear statement to the contrary, Congress’s reference to the ‘regulatory authority of a State’ should be read to preserve, not preempt, the traditional prerogative of the States to delegate their authority to their constituent parts.”1183

Perhaps the broadest preemption section ever enacted, § 514 of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), is so constructed that the Court has been moved to comment that the provisions “are not a model of legislative drafting.”1184 The section declares that the statute shall “supersede any and all State laws insofar as they now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan,” but saves to the States the power to enforce “any law . . . which regulates insurance, banking, or securities,” except that an employee benefit plan governed by ERISA shall not be “deemed” an insurance company, an insurer, or engaged in the business of insurance for purposes of state laws “purporting to regulate” insurance companies or insurance contracts.1185 Interpretation of the provisions has resulted in contentious and divided Court opinions.1186

Also illustrative of the judicial difficulty with ambiguous pre-emption language are the fractured opinions in Cipollone, in which the Court had to decide whether sections of the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, enacted in 1965 and 1969, pre-empted state common-law actions against a cigarette company for the alleged harm visited on a smoker.1187 The 1965 provision barred the requirement of any “statement” relating to smoking health, other than what the federal law imposed, and the 1969 provision barred the imposition of any “requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health” by any “State law.” It was, thus, a fair question whether common-law claims, based on design defect, failure to warn, breach of express warranty, fraudulent misrepresentation, and conspiracy to defraud, were preempted or whether only positive state enactments came within the scope of the clauses. Two groups of Justices concluded that the 1965 section reached only positive state law and did not preempt common-law actions;1188 different alignments of Justices concluded that the 1969 provisions did reach common-law claims, as well as positive enactments, and did preempt some of the claims insofar as they in fact constituted a requirement or prohibition based on smoking health.1189

Little clarification of the confusing Cipollone decision and opinions resulted in the cases following, although it does seem evident that the attempted distinction limiting courts to the particular language of preemption when Congress has spoken has not prevailed. At issue in Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr1190 was the Medical Device Amendments (MDA) of 1976, which prohibited states from adopting or continuing in effect “with respect to a [medical] device” any “requirement” that is “different from, or in addition to” the applicable federal requirement and that relates to the safety or effectiveness of the device.1191 The issue was whether a common-law tort obligation imposed a “requirement” that was different from or in addition to any federal requirement. The device, a pacemaker lead, had come on the market not pursuant to the rigorous FDA test but rather as determined by the FDA to be “substantially equivalent” to a device previously on the market, a situation of some import to at least some of the Justices.

Unanimously, the Court determined that a defective design claim was not preempted and that the MDA did not prevent states from providing a damages remedy for violation of common-law duties that paralleled federal requirements. But the Justices split 4–1–4 with respect to preemption of various claims relating to manufacturing and labeling. FDA regulations, which a majority deferred to, limited preemption to situations in which a particular state requirement threatens to interfere with a specific federal interest. Moreover, the common-law standards were not specifically developed to govern medical devices and their generality removed them from the category of requirements “with respect to” specific devices. However, five Justices did agree that common-law requirements could be, just as statutory provisions, “requirements” that were pre-empted, though they did not agree on the application of that view.1192

Following Cipollone, the Court observed that, although it “need not go beyond” the statutory preemption language, it did need to “identify the domain expressly pre-empted” by the language, so that “our interpretation of that language does not occur in a contextual vacuum.” That is, it must be informed by two presumptions about the nature of preemption: the presumption that Congress does not cavalierly preempt common-law causes of action and the principle that Congress’s purpose is the ultimate touchstone.1193

The Court continued to struggle with application of express pre-emption language to state common-law tort actions in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co.1194 The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act contained both a preemption clause, prohibiting states from applying “any safety standard” different from an applicable federal standard, and a “saving clause,” providing that “compliance with” a federal safety standard “does not exempt any person from any liability under common law.” The Court determined that the express preemption clause was inapplicable, because the saving clause implied that some number of state common law actions would be saved. However, despite the saving clause, the Court ruled that a common law tort action seeking damages for failure to equip a car with a front seat airbag, in addition to a seat belt, was preempted. According to the Court, allowing the suit would frustrate the purpose of a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard that specifically had intended to give manufacturers a choice among a variety of “passive restraint” systems for the applicable model year.1195 The Court’s holding makes clear, contrary to the suggestion in Cipollone, that existence of express preemption language does not foreclose the alternative operation of conflict (in this case “frustration of purpose”) preemption.1196

Field Preemption. Where the scheme of federal regulation is “so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it,”1197 states are ousted from the field. Still a paradigmatic example of field preemption is Hines v. Davidowitz,1198 in which the Court held that a new federal law requiring the registration of all aliens in the country precluded enforcement of a pre-existing state law mandating registration of aliens within the state.1199 Adverting to the supremacy of national power in foreign relations and the sensitivity of the relationship between the regulation of aliens and the conduct of foreign affairs, the Court had little difficulty declaring the entire field to have been occupied by federal law.1200 Similarly, in Pennsylvania v. Nelson,1201 the Court invalidated as preempted a state law punishing sedition against the National Government. The Court enunciated a three-part test: (1) the pervasiveness of federal regulation, (2) federal occupation of the field as necessitated by the need for national uniformity, and (3) the danger of conflict between state and federal administration.1202

Rice itself held that a federal system of regulating the operations of warehouses and the rates they charged completely occupied the field and ousted state regulation.1203

Field preemption analysis often involves delimiting the subject of federal regulation and determining whether a federal law has regulated part of the field, however defined, or the whole area, so that state law cannot even supplement the federal.1204 Illustrative of this point is the Court’s holding that the Atomic Energy Act’s preemption of the safety aspects of nuclear power did not invalidate a state law conditioning construction of nuclear power plants on a finding by a state agency that adequate storage and disposal facilities were available to treat nuclear wastes, because “economic” regulation of power generation has traditionally been left to the states—an arrangement maintained by the Act—and because the state law could be justified as an economic rather than a safety regulation.1205

A city’s effort to enforce stiff penalties for ship pollution that resulted from boilers approved by the Federal Government was held not preempted, the field of boiler safety, but not boiler pollution, having been occupied by federal regulation.1206 A state liability scheme imposing cleanup costs and strict, no-fault liability on shore facilities and ships for any oil-spill damage was held to complement a federal law concerned solely with recovery of actual cleanup costs incurred by the Federal Government and which textually presupposed federal-state cooperation.1207 On the other hand, a comprehensive regulation of the design, size, and movement of oil tankers in Puget Sound was found, save in one respect, to be either expressly or implicitly preempted by federal law and regulations. Critical to the determination was the Court’s conclusion that Congress, without actually saying so, had intended to mandate exclusive standards and a single federal decisionmaker for safety purposes in vessel regulation.1208 Also, a closely divided Court voided a city ordinance placing an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew on jet flights from the city airport where, despite the absence of preemptive language in federal law, federal regulation of aircraft noise was of such a pervasive nature as to leave no room for state or local regulation.1209

The Court has, however, recognized that when a federal statute preempts a narrow field, leaving states to regulate outside of that field, state laws whose “target” is beyond the field of federal regulation are not necessarily displaced by field preemption principles,1210 and such state laws may “incidentally” affect the pre-empted field.1211 In Oneok v. Learjet, gas pipeline companies and the federal government asserted that state antitrust claims against the pipeline companies for alleged manipulation of certain indices used in setting natural gas prices were field preempted because the Natural Gas Act (NGA) regulates wholesale prices of natural gas.1212 The Court disagreed. In so doing, the Court noted that the alleged manipulation of the price indices also affected retail prices, the regulation of which is left to the states by the NGA.1213 Because the Court viewed Congress as having struck a “careful balance” between federal and state regulation when enacting the NGA, it took the view that,1214 “where (as here) a state law can be applied” both to sales regulated by the federal government and to other sales, “we must proceed cautiously, finding pre-emption only where detailed examination convinces us that a matter falls within the pre-empted field as defined by our precedents.”1215 The Court found no such preemption here, in part because the “target at which the state law aims” was practices affecting retail prices, something which the Court viewed as “firmly on the States’ side of th[e] dividing line.”1216 The Court also noted that the “broad applicability” of state antitrust laws supported a finding of no preemption here,1217 as does the states’ historic role in providing common law and statutory remedies against monopolies and unfair business practices.1218 However, while declining to find field preemption, the Court left open the possibility of conflict preemption, which had not been raised by the parties.1219

Congress may preempt state regulation without itself prescribing a federal standard; it may deregulate a field and thus occupy it by opting for market regulation and precluding state or local regulation.1220

Conflict Preemption. Several possible situations will lead to a holding that a state law is preempted as in conflict with federal law. First, it may be that the two laws, federal and state, will actually conflict. Thus, in Rose v. Arkansas State Police,1221 federal law provided for death benefits for state law enforcement officers “in addition to” any other compensation, while the state law required a reduction in state benefits by the amount received from other sources. The Court, in a brief, per curiam opinion, had no difficulty finding the state provision preempted.1222

Second, conflict preemption may occur when it is practically impossible to comply with the terms of both laws. Thus, where a federal agency had authorized federal savings and loan associations to include “due-on-sale” clauses in their loan instruments and where the state had largely prevented inclusion of such clauses, while it was literally possible for lenders to comply with both rules, the federal rule being permissive, the state regulation prevented the exercise of the flexibility the federal agency had conferred and was pre-empted.1223 More problematic are circumstances in which a party has an administrative avenue for seeking removal of impediments to dual compliance. In Pliva, Inc. v. Mensing,1224 federal law required generic drugs to be labeled the same as the brand name counterpart, while state tort law required drug labels to contain adequate warnings to render use of the drug reasonably safe. There had been accumulating evidence that long-term use of the drug metoclopramide carried a significant risk of severe neurological damage, but manufacturers of generic metoclopramide neither amended their warning labels nor sought to have the Food and Drug Administration require the brand name manufacturer to include stronger label warnings, which consequently would have led to stronger labeling of the generic. Five Justices held that state tort law was pre-empted.1225 It was impossible to comply both with the state law duty to change the label and the federal law duty to keep the label the same.1226 The four dissenting Justices argued that inability to change the labels unilaterally was insufficient, standing alone, to establish a defense based on impossibility.1227 Emphasizing the federal duty to monitor the safety of their drugs, the dissenters would require that the generic manufacturers also show some effort to effectuate a labeling change through the FDA.

The Court reached a similar result in Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett.1228 There, the Court again faced the question of whether FDA labeling requirements preempted state tort law in a case involving sales by a generic drug manufacturer. The lower court had held that it was not impossible for the manufacturer to comply with both the FDA’s labeling requirements and state law that required stronger warnings regarding the drug’s safety because the manufacturer could simply stop selling the drug. The Supreme Court rejected the “stop-selling rationale” because it “would render impossibility pre-emption a dead letter and work a revolution in . . . pre-emption case law.”1229

In contrast to Pliva, Inc. v. Mensing and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, the Court found no preemption in Wyeth v. Levine,1230 a state tort action against a brand-name drug manufacturer based on inadequate labeling. A brand-name drug manufacturer, unlike makers of generic drugs, could unilaterally strengthen labeling under federal regulations, subject to subsequent FDA override, and thereby independently meet state tort law requirements. In another case of alleged impossibility, it was held possible for an employer to comply both with a state law mandating leave and reinstatement to pregnant employees and with a federal law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.1231 Similarly, when faced with both federal and state standards on the ripeness of avocados, the Court discerned that the federal standard was a “minimum” one rather than a “uniform” one and decided that growers could comply with both.1232

Third, a fruitful source of preemption is found when it is determined that the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.1233 Thus, despite the inclusion of a saving clause preserving liability under common law, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act nevertheless was found to have preempted a state common law tort action based on the failure of a car manufacturer to install front seat airbags: Giving car manufacturers some leeway in developing and introducing passive safety restraint devices was, according to the Court, a key congressional objective under the Act, one that would frustrated should a tort action be allowed to proceed.1234 The Court also has voided a state requirement that the average net weight of a package of flour in a lot could not be less than the net weight stated on the package. While applicable federal law permitted variations from stated weight caused by distribution losses, such as through partial dehydration, the state allowed no such deviation. Although it was possible for a producer to satisfy the federal standard while satisfying the tougher state standard, the Court discerned that to do so defeated one purpose of the federal requirement—the facilitating of value comparisons by shoppers. Because different producers in different situations in order to comply with the state standard may have to overpack flour to make up for dehydration loss, consumers would not be comparing packages containing identical amounts of flour solids.1235 In Felder v. Casey,1236 a state notice-of-claim statute was found to frustrate the remedial objectives of civil rights laws as applied to actions brought in state court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A state law recognizing the validity of an unrecorded oral sale of an aircraft was held preempted by the Federal Aviation Act’s provision that unrecorded “instruments” of transfer are invalid, since the congressional purpose evidenced in the legislative history was to make information about an aircraft’s title readily available by requiring that all transfers be documented and recorded.1237

In Boggs v. Boggs,1238 the Court, 5-to-4, applied the “stands as an obstacle” test for conflict even though the statute (ERISA) contains an express preemption section. The dispute arose in a community-property state, in which heirs of a deceased wife claimed property that involved pension-benefit assets that was left to them by testamentary disposition, as against a surviving second wife. Two ERISA provisions operated to prevent the descent of the property to the heirs, but under community-property rules the property could have been left to the heirs by their deceased mother. The Court did not pause to analyze whether the ERISA preemption provision operated to preclude the descent of the property, either because state law “relate[d] to” a covered pension plan or because state law had an impermissible “connection with” a plan, but it instead decided that the operation of the state law insofar as it conflicted with the purposes Congress had intended to achieve by ERISA and insofar as it ran into the two noted provisions of ERISA stood as an obstacle to the effectuation of the ERISA law. “We can begin, and in this case end, the analysis by simply asking if state law conflicts with the provisions of ERISA or operates to frustrate its objects. We hold that there is a conflict, which suffices to resolve the case. We need not inquire whether the statutory phrase ‘relate to’ provides further and additional support for the pre-emption claim. Nor need we consider the applicability of field pre-emption.”1239

Similarly, the Court found it unnecessary to consider field pre-emption due to its holding that a Massachusetts law barring state agencies from purchasing goods or services from companies doing business with Burma imposed obstacles to the accomplishment of Congress’s full objectives under the federal Burma sanctions law.1240 The state law was said to undermine the federal law in several respects that could have implicated field preemption—by limiting the President’s effective discretion to control sanctions, and by frustrating the President’s ability to engage in effective diplomacy in developing a comprehensive multilateral strategy—but the Court “decline[d] to speak to field preemption as a separate issue.”1241

Also, a state law making agricultural producers’ associations the exclusive bargaining agents and requiring payment of service fees by nonmember producers was held to counter a strong federal policy protecting the right of farmers to join or not join such associations.1242 And a state assertion of the right to set minimum stream-flow requirements different from those established by FERC in its licensing capacity was denied as being preempted under the Federal Power Act, despite language requiring deference to state laws “relating to the control, appropriation, use, or distribution of water.”1243

Contrarily, a comprehensive federal regulation of insecticides and other such chemicals was held not to preempt a town ordinance that required a permit for the spraying of pesticides, there being no conflict between requirements.1244 The application of state antitrust laws to authorize indirect purchasers to recover for all overcharges passed on to them by direct purchasers was held to implicate no preemption concerns, because the federal antitrust laws had been interpreted to not permit indirect purchasers to recover under federal law; the state law may have been inconsistent with federal law but in no way did it frustrate federal objectives and policies.1245 The effect of federal policy was not strong enough to warrant a holding of preemption when a state authorized condemnation of abandoned railroad property after conclusion of an ICC proceeding permitting abandonment, although the railroad’s opportunity costs in the property had been considered in the decision on abandonment.1246


Regulations as well as statutes can preempt. Agency regulations, when Congress has expressly or implied empowered these bodies to preempt, are “the supreme law of the land” and can displace state law. E.g., Smiley v. Citibank, 517 U.S. 735 (1996); City of New York v. FCC, 486 U.S. 57, 63–64 (1988); Louisiana Public Service Comm’n v. FCC, 476 U.S. 355 (1986); Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp, 467 U.S. 691 (1984); Fidelity Fed. Savings & Loan Ass’n v. de la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141 (1982). Federal common law, i.e., law applied by the courts in the absence of explicit statutory directive, and respecting uniquely federal interests, can also displace state law. See Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988) (Supreme Court promulgated common-law rule creating government-contractor defense in tort liability suits, despite Congress’s having considered and failed to enact bills doing precisely this); Westfall v. Erwin, 484 U.S. 292 (1988) (civil liability of federal officials for actions taken in the course of their duty). Finally, ordinances of local governments are subject to preemption under the same standards as state law. Hillsborough County v. Automated Medical Laboratories, 471 U.S. 707 (1985). back
Thus, § 408 of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, as amended by the Wholesome Meat Act, 21 U.S.C. § 678, provides that “[m]arking, labeling, packaging, or ingredient requirements in addition to, or different than, those made under this chapter may not be imposed by any state . . . .” See Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 528–32 (1977). See also National Meat Ass’n v. Harris, 565 U.S. ___, No. 10–224, slip op. (2012) (broad preemption of all state laws on slaughterhouse activities regardless of conflict with federal law). Similarly, much state action is saved by the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 15 U.S.C. § 78bb(a), which states that “[n]othing in this chapter shall affect the jurisdiction of the securities commissioner (or any agency or officer performing like functions) of any State over any security or any person insofar as it does not conflict with the provisions of this chapter or the rules and regulations thereunder.” For examples of other express preemptive provisions, see Norfolk & Western Ry. v. American Train Dispatchers’ Ass’n, 499 U.S. 117 (1991); Exxon Corp. v. Hunt, 475 U.S. 355 (1986). See also Department of Treasury v. Fabe, 508 U.S. 491 (1993). back
For example, in Coventry Health Care of Missouri, Inc. v. Nevils, the Court noted that it has “ ‘repeatedly recognized’ that the phrase ‘relate to’ in a preemption clause ‘express[es] a broad pre-emptive purpose.’ Congress characteristically employs the phrase to reach any subject that has ‘a connection with, or reference to,’ the topics the statute enumerates.” 581 U.S. ___, No. 16–149, slip op. at 7 (2017) (quoting Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 383–84 (1992)) (internal citation omitted). Coventry Health Care involved an express preemption provision of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Act of 1959 (FEHBA) under which any terms of contracts with private carriers for federal employees’ health insurance that “relate to the nature, provision, or extent of coverage of benefits (including payments with respect to benefits) . . . supersede and preempt any State or local law . . . which relates to health insurance or plans.” Id. at 1 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 8902(m)(1)) (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis added). A federal employee brought an action alleging violations of a Missouri consumer protection law against a private carrier that asserted a lien against the employee’s personal injury settlement under the subrogation and reimbursement terms of a health insurance contract. While there was no dispute that the Missouri law “relates to health insurance,” the Court examined whether the contractual subrogation and reimbursement terms “relate to . . . payments with respect to benefits.” Id. at 2. Based on the statutory language, including “Congress’ use of the expansive phrase ‘relate to,’ ” the Court held that such contractual provisions do “ ‘relate to . . . payments with respect to benefits’ because subrogation and reimbursement rights yield just such payments. When a carrier exercises its right to either reimbursement or subrogation, it receives from either the beneficiary or a third party ‘payment’ respecting the benefits the carrier had previously paid.” Id. at 6–7. The Court also rejected the respondent’s argument that allowing a contract to preempt state law violated the Supremacy Clause, which by its terms provides preemptive effect to the “laws of the United States.” Id. at 9. The Court held “that the regime Congress enacted is compatible with the Supremacy Clause”, id. at 1–2, because, like “[m]any other federal statutes,” FEHBA provides that certain contract terms have preemptive force only to the extent that the contract “fall[s] within the statute’s preemptive scope.” Id. at 9. In this way, the Court concluded that the “statute, not a contract, strips state law of its force.” Id. For a discussion of preemption in the context of the Supremacy Clause, see infra Article VI: Clause 2. back
Aloha Airlines v. Director of Taxation, 464 U.S. 7, 13–14 (1983). back
Morales v. TWA, 504 U.S. 374 (1992). The section, 49 U.S.C. § 1305(a)(1), was held to preempt state rules on advertising. See also American Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens, 513 U.S. 219 (1995); Nw, Inc. v. Ginsberg, 572 U.S. ___, No. 12–462, slip op. (2014) (holding that the Airline Deregulation Act’s preemption provision applied to state common law claims, including an airline customer’s claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing). But see Dan’s City Used Cars, Inc. v. Pelkey, 569 U.S. ___, No. 12–52, slip op. (2013) (provision of Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 preempting state law “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier . . . with respect to the transportation of property” held not to preempt state laws on the disposal of towed vehicles by towing companies). back
8 U.S.C. § 1324a(h)(2). back
563 U.S. 582 (2011). The Whiting majority notably began its analysis of whether the challenged Arizona statute was preempted by federal law with a statement that “[w]hen a federal law contains an express preemption clause, we ‘focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress’ pre-emptive intent.’ ” Id. at 594. Subsequently, in writing for the majority in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust, Justice Thomas cited this language from Whiting in support of the proposition that no presumption against preemption is to be applied when a congressional enactment includes an express preemption clause. See 579 U.S. ___, No. 15–233, slip op. at 9 (2016) (declining to apply a presumption against preemption in finding that the federal Bankruptcy Code preempts a Puerto Rico bankruptcy law). back
Whiting, 563 U.S. at 612 (Breyer, J., dissenting); id. at 631 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). back
563 U.S. ___, No. 09–893, slip op. (2011). back
9 U.S.C. § 2. back
Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia held, inter alia, that the saving clause was not intended to open arbitration provisions themselves to possible scrutiny. 563 U.S. ___, No. 09–893, slip op. (2011). The four dissenting Justices interpreted the saving clause as allowing use of the California law to attack the anti-class arbitration contract provision. Id. (Breyer, J. dissenting). back
City of Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Serv., 536 U.S. 424, 429 (2002). back
Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724, 739 (1985), repeated in FMC Corp. v. Holliday, 498 U.S. 52, 58 (1991). back
29 U.S.C. §§ 1144(a), 1144(b)(2)(A), 1144(b)(2)(B). The Court has described this section as a “virtually unique pre-emption provision.” Franchise Tax Bd. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 24 n.26 (1983). See Ingersoll-Rand Co. v. McClendon, 498 U.S. 133, 138–139 (1990); see also id. at 142–45 (describing and applying another preemption provision of ERISA). back
Gobeille v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 577 U.S. ___, No. 14–181, slip op. at 9 (2016) (holding that ERISA—with its extensive reporting, disclosure, and recordkeeping requirements that are “central to, and an essential part of,” its uniform plan administration system—preempted a Vermont law requiring certain entities, including health insurers, to report health care related information to a state agency); Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200 (2004) (suit brought against HMO under state health care liability act for failure to exercise ordinary care when denying benefits is preempted); Boggs v. Boggs, 520 U.S. 833 (1997) (decided not on the basis of the express preemption language but instead by implied preemption analysis); De Buono v. NYSA–ILA Med. & Clinical Servs. Fund, 520 U.S. 806 (1997); Cal. Div. of Labor Standards Enf ’t v. Dillingham Constr., Inc., 519 U.S. 316 (1997); N.Y. State Conf. of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Ins. Co., 514 U.S. 645 (1995) (no pre-emption of statute that required hospitals to collect surcharges from patients covered by a commercial insurer but not from patients covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan); John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Harris Trust & Sav. Bank, 510 U.S. 86 (1993) (ERISA’s fiduciary standards, not conflicting state insurance laws, apply to insurance company’s handling of general account assets derived from participating group annuity contract); District of Columbia v. Greater Washington Bd. of Trade, 506 U.S. 125 (1992) (law requiring employers to provide health insurance coverage, equivalent to existing coverage, for workers receiving workers’ compensation benefits); Ingersoll-Rand Co. v. McClendon, 498 U.S. 133 (1990) (ERISA preempts state common-law claim of wrongful discharge to prevent employee attaining benefits under plan covered by ERISA); FMC Corp. v. Holliday, 498 U.S. 52 (1990) (provision of state motor-vehicle financial-responsibility law barring subrogation and reimbursement from claimant’s tort recovery for benefits received from a self-insured health-care plan preempted by ERISA); Fort Halifax Packing Co. v. Coyne, 482 U.S. 1 (1987) (state law requiring employers to provide a one-time severance payment to employees in the event of a plant closing held not preempted by 5–4 vote); Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724 (1985) (state law mandating that certain minimum mental-health-care benefits be provided to those insured under general health-insurance policy or employee health-care plan is a law “which regulates insurance” and is not preempted); Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, 463 U.S. 85 (1983) (state law forbidding discrimination in employee benefit plans on the basis of pregnancy not pre-empted, because of another saving provision in ERISA, and provision requiring employers to pay sick-leave benefits to employees unable to work because of pregnancy not preempted under construction of coverage sections, but both laws “relate to” employee benefit plans); Alessi v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., 451 U.S. 504 (1981) (state law prohibiting plans from reducing benefits by amount of workers’ compensation awards “relates to” employee benefit plan and is preempted). back
Cipollone v. Liggett Group, 505 U.S. 504 (1992). The decision relied on two controversial rules of construction. First, the courts should interpret narrowly provisions that purport to preempt state police-power regulations, and, second, that when a law has express preemption language courts should look only to that language and presume that when the preemptive reach of a law is defined Congress did not intend to go beyond that reach, so that field and conflict preemption will not be found. Id. at 517; and id. at 532–33 (Justice Blackmun concurring and dissenting). Both parts of this canon are departures from established law. Narrow construction when state police powers are involved has hitherto related to implied preemption, not express preemption, and courts generally have applied ordinary-meaning construction to such statutory language; further, courts have not precluded the finding of conflict preemption, though perhaps field preemption, because of the existence of some express preemptive language. See id. at 546–48 (Justice Scalia concurring and dissenting). back
505 U.S. at 518–19 (opinion of the court), 533–34 (Justice Blackmun concurring). back
505 U.S. at 520–30 (plurality opinion), 535–43 (Justice Blackmun concurring and dissenting), 548–50 (Justice Scalia concurring and dissenting). back
518 U.S. 470 (1996). See also CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658 (1993) (under Federal Railroad Safety Act, a state common-law claim alleging negligence for operating a train at excessive speed is preempted, but a second claim alleging negligence for failure to maintain adequate warning devices at a grade crossing is not preempted); Norfolk So. Ry. v. Shanklin, 529 U.S. 344 (2000) (applying Easterwood). back
21 U.S.C. § 350k(a). back
The dissent, by Justice O’Connor and three others, would have held pre-empted the latter claims, 518 U.S. at 509, whereas Justice Breyer thought that common-law claims would sometimes be preempted, but not here. Id. at 503 (concurring). back
518 U.S. at 484–85. See also id. at 508 (Justice Breyer concurring); Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, 288–89 (1995); Barnett Bank v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25, 31 (1996); California Div. of Labor Standards Enforcement v. Dillingham Construction, Inc., 519 U.S. 316, 334 (1997) (Justice Scalia concurring); Boggs v. Boggs, 520 U.S. 833 (1997) (using “stands as an obstacle” preemption analysis in an ERISA case, having express preemptive language, but declining to decide when implied pre-emption may be used despite express language), and id. at 854 (Justice Breyer dissenting) (analyzing the preemption issue under both express and implied standards). back
529 U.S. 861 (2000). back
The Court focused on the word “exempt” to give the saving clause a narrow application—as “simply bar[ring] a special kind of defense, . . . that compliance with a federal safety standard automatically exempts a defendant from state law, whether the Federal Government meant that standard to be an absolute requirement or only a minimum one.” 529 U.S. at 869. But cf. Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51 (2002) (interpreting preemption language and saving clause in Federal Boat Safety Act as not precluding a state common law tort action). back
Compare Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 562 U.S. ___, No. 08–1314, slip op. (2011) (applying same statute as Geir, and later version of same regulation, no conflict preemption found of common law suit based on rear seat belt type, because giving manufacturers a choice on the type of rear seat belt to install was not a “significant objective” of the statute or regulation). For a decision applying express preemption language to a variety of state common law claims, see Bates v. Dow Agrosciences LLC, 544 U.S. 431 (2005) (interpreting FIFRA, the federal law governing pesticides). back
Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947). The case also is the source of the oft-quoted maxim that when Congress legislates in a field traditionally occupied by the states, courts should “start with the assumption that the historic police powers of the States were not to be superseded by the Federal Act unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.” Id. back
312 U.S. 52 (1941). back
In Arizona v. United States, the Court struck down state penalties for violating federal alien registration requirements, emphasizing that “[w]here Congress occupies an entire field, . . . even complementary state regulation is impermissible.” 567 U.S. ___, No. 11–182, slip op. at 10 (2012) The same case also struck down on preemption grounds state sanctions on unauthorized aliens who work or seek employment, id. at 12–15, and authority for state officers to make warrantless arrests based on possible deportability under federal immigration law. Id. By contrast, a regime of state immigration status checks with federal authorities was found not to be preempted on its face because the regime was supported by federal law facilitating federal-state cooperation in immigration enforcement. back
The Court also said that courts must look to see whether under the circumstances of a particular case, the state law “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” 312 U.S. at 67. That standard is obviously drawn from conflict preemption, for the two standards are frequently intermixed. See AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. ___, No. 09–893, slip op. at 9–18 (2011) (Scalia, J.). Nonetheless, not all state regulation is precluded. De Canas v. Bica, 424 U.S. 351 (1976) (upholding a state law penalizing the employment of an illegal alien, the case arising before enactment of the federal law doing the same thing). back
350 U.S. 497 (1956). back
350 U.S. at 502–05. Obviously, there is a noticeable blending into conflict preemption. back
Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218 (1947). back
See Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 565 U.S. ___, No. 10–879, slip op. (2012) (state suit by the estate of maintenance engineer alleging manufacturer’s defective design of locomotive components and failure to warn of accompanying dangers held preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act; the subject of the Act held to be the regulation of locomotive equipment generally, including its manufacture, and not limited to regulating activities of locomotive operators or regulating locomotives while in use for transporation). Compare Campbell v. Hussey, 368 U.S. 297 (1961) (state law requiring tobacco of a certain type to be marked by white tags, ousted by federal regulation that occupied the field and left no room for supplementation), with Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132 (1963) (state law setting minimum oil content for avocados certified as mature by federal regulation is complementary to federal law, because federal standard was a minimum one, the field having not been occupied). One should be wary of assuming that a state law that has dual purposes and impacts will not, just for the duality, be held to be preempted. See Gade v. National Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass’n, 505 U.S. 88 (1992); Perez v. Campbell, 402 U.S. 637 (1971) (under Bankruptcy Clause). back
Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. Energy Resources Comm’n, 461 U.S. 190 (1983). Neither does the same reservation of exclusive authority to regulate nuclear safety preempt imposition of punitive damages under state tort law, even if based upon the jury’s conclusion that a nuclear licensee failed to follow adequate safety precautions. Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 (1984). See also English v. General Electric Co., 496 U.S. 72 (1990) (employee’s state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress for her nuclear-plant employer’s actions retaliating for her whistleblowing is not preempted as relating to nuclear safety). back
Huron Portland Cement Co. v. City of Detroit, 362 U.S. 440 (1960). back
Askew v. American Waterways Operators, 411 U.S. 325 (1973). back
Ray v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 435 U.S. 151 (1978). United States v. Locke, 529 U.S. 89 (2000) (applying Ray). See also Exxon Corp. v. Eagerton, 462 U.S. 176 (1983) (preempting a state ban on pass-through of a severance tax on oil and gas, because Congress has occupied the field of wholesale sales of natural gas in interstate commerce); Schneidewind v. ANR Pipeline Co., 485 U.S. 293 (1988) (Natural Gas Act preempts state regulation of securities issuance by covered gas companies); Bonito Boats, Inc. v. Thunder Craft Boats, Inc., 489 U.S. 141 (1989) (under Patent Clause, state law extending patent-like protection to unpatented designs invades an area of pervasive federal regulation). back
City of Burbank v. Lockheed Air Terminal, 411 U.S. 624 (1973). back
Oneok, Inc. v. Learjet, Inc., 575 U.S. ___, No. 13–271, slip op. at 10–12 (2015). back
Cf. Hughes v. Talen Energy Mktg., LLC, 578 U.S. ___, No. 14–614, slip op. at 12–13 (2016) (holding that while “States . . . may regulate within the domain Congress assigned to them even when their laws incidentally affect areas” within the federal regulatory field, “States may not seek to achieve ends, however legitimate, through regulatory means that intrude on” the federal government’s authority over the field in question) (citing to Oneok, Inc., slip op. at 11). back
See Oneok, Inc., slip op. at 3, 10. back
Id. at 3. back
Id. at 13. back
Id. at 10. back
Id. at 11. back
Id. at 13. back
Id. at 14. back
Id. at 15–16. back
Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp. v. Mississippi Oil & Gas Board, 474 U.S. 409 (1986); Puerto Rico Dept. of Consumer Affairs v. Isla Petroleum Corp., 485 U.S. 495 (1988). back
479 U.S. 1 (1986). back
For similar examples of conflict preemption, see Wos v. E.M.A., 568 U.S. ___, No. 12–98, slip op. (2013) (holding that a North Carolina statute allowing the state to collect up to one-third of the amount of a tort settlement as reimbursement for state-paid medical expenses under Medicaid conflicted with anti-lien provisions of the federal Medicaid statute where the settlement designated an amount less than one-third as the medical expenses award). See also Doctor’s Assoc.’s, Inc. v. Casarotto, 517 U.S. 681 (1996) (federal arbitration law preempts state statute that conditioned enforceability of arbitration clause on compliance with special notice requirement); Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265 (1995) (federal arbitration law preempts state law invalidating predispute arbitration agreements that were not entered into in contemplation of substantial interstate activity). back
Fidelity Fed. Savings & Loan Assn. v. de la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141 (1982). back
564 U.S. ___, No. 09–993, slip op. (2011). back
564 U.S. ___, No. 09–993, slip op. (2011) (Thomas, J.). back
Justice Thomas, joined on point by three others, characterized the Supremacy Clause phrase “any [state law] to the Contrary notwithstanding” as a non obtstante provision that “suggests that federal law should be understood to impliedly repeal conflicting state law” and indicates limits on the extent to which courts should seek to reconcile federal and state law in preemption cases. 564 U.S. ___, No. 09–993, slip op. at 15–17 (2011) (Thomas, J.). back
564 U.S. ___, No. 09–993, slip op. (2011) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). back
570 U.S. ___, No. 12–142, slip op. (2013). back
Id. at 1–2. back
555 U.S. ___, No. 06–1249, slip op. (2009). back
California Federal Savings & Loan Ass’n v. Guerra, 479 U.S. 272 (1987). Compare Cloverleaf Butter Co. v. Patterson, 315 U.S. 148 (1942) (federal law preempts more exacting state standards, even though both could be complied with and state standards were harmonious with purposes of federal law). back
Florida Lime & Avocado Growers v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132 (1963). back
The standard is drawn from Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941), which often is held out as a leading example of field preemption analysis. When “frustration of purpose” predominates in an opinion, it may be fairer to characterize the issue as one of conflict preemption, rather than field preemption, for the possibility of a limited state role would appear to be implicitly recognized. Arizona v. United States, in which the Court found three of the four Arizona immigration provisions it examined to be preempted, illustrates the continuum from field to conflict analysis. In overturning state penalties for violations of federal alien registration requirements, the Court found the sweep and detail of the federal law to leave no room whatsoever for state regulation. In overturning state sanctions against unauthorized aliens seeking employment or working, the Court emphasized that the comprehensive system of federal employer sanctions eschewed employee sanctions, and allowing states to impose them would upset the careful policy balance struck by Congress. In overturning state authority to arrest individuals believed to be deportable on criminal grounds, the Court did not examine whether state officers have any inherent arrest authority in deportation cases, but rather found that allowing states to engage in such arrests as a general matter creates an obstacle to congressional objectives. And finally, the Court declined to overturn on its face a state policy of checking the immigration status of individuals stopped by the police for general law enforcement purposes, finding that federal law facilitated status checks and only implementation of the status check policy would disclose whether federal enforcement policy ultimately would be frustrated. 567 U.S. ___, No. 11–182, slip op. (2012). See also Barnett Bank of Marion County v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25 (1996) (federal law empowering national banks in small towns to sell insurance preempts state law prohibiting banks from dealing in insurance; despite explicit preemption provision, state law stands as an obstacle to accomplishment of federal purpose); Hillman v. Maretta, 569 U.S. ___, No. 11–1221, slip op. (2013) (state law cause of action against ex-spouse for life insurance proceeds paid under a designation of beneficiary in a federal employee policy held to be preempted by a federal employee insurance statute giving employees the right to designate a beneficiary; beyond administrative convenience, Congress intended that the proceeds actually belong to the named beneficiary). Unsurprisingly, the Justices at times disagree on what Congress’s primary objectives and purposes were in passing particular legislation, and such a disagreement can end with different conclusions about whether state law has been pre-empted. See AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. ___, No. 09–893, slip op. (2011). back
Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861 (2000). back
Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 532–543 (1977). back
487 U.S. 131 (1988). back
Philco Aviation v. Shacket, 462 U.S. 406 (1983). back
520 U.S. 833 (1997). back
520 U.S. at 841. The dissent, id. at 854 (Justice Breyer), agreed that conflict analysis was appropriate, but he did not find that the state law achieved any result that ERISA required. back
Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363 (2000). back
530 U.S. at 374 n.8. back
Michigan Canners & Freezers Ass’n v. Agricultural Marketing & Bargaining Bd., 467 U.S. 461 (1984). See also Nantahala Power & Light Co. v. Thornburg, 476 U.S. 953 (1986) (state allocation of costs for purposes of setting retail electricity rates, by disallowing costs permitted by FERC in setting wholesale rates, frustrated federal regulation by possibly preventing the utility from recovering in its sales the costs of paying the FERC-approved wholesale rate); Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp, 467 U.S. 691 (1984) (state ban on cable TV advertising frustrates federal policy in the copyright law by which cable operators pay a royalty fee for the right to retransmit distant broadcast signals upon agreement not to delete commercials); International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U.S. 481 (1987) (damage action based on common law of downstream state frustrates Clean Water Act’s policies favoring permitting state in interstate disputes and favoring predictability in permit process). back
California v. FERC, 495 U.S. 490 (1990). The savings clause was found inapplicable on the basis of an earlier interpretation of the language in First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative v. FPC, 328 U.S. 152 (1946). back
Wisconsin Public Intervenor v. Mortier, 501 U.S. 597, 614–16 (1991). back
California v. ARC America Corp., 490 U.S. 93 (1989). back
Hayfield Northern Ry. v. Chicago & N.W. Transp. Co., 467 U.S. 622 (1984). See also CTS Corp. v. Dynamics Corp. of America, 481 U.S. 69 (1987) (federal law’s broad purpose of protecting shareholders as a group is furthered by state anti-takeover law); Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619 (1987) (provision governing veterans’ disability benefits protects veterans’ families as well as veterans, hence state child-support order resulting in payment out of benefits is not preempted). back