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Blais v. Rhode Island Airport Corp.

Superior Court of Rhode Island

July 12, 2017

RHODE ISLAND AIRPORT CORPORATION and KELLY J. FREDERICKS, as President/Director and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation

         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff: Kevin C. Cain, Esq.

          For Defendant: Matthew C. Reeber, Esq.


          TAFT-CARTER, J.

         Before the Court is an appeal from a decision by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), prohibiting aircraft pilot Plaintiff Kevin M. Blais (Plaintiff) from entering the premises of North Central State Airport (North Central) in Smithfield, Rhode Island. In addition to his appeal, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42–35–15 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and chapter 30 of title 9, entitled the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA).


         Facts and Travel

         In early 2010, Plaintiff purchased an aircraft and obtained a gate key from the airport manager at North Central. (Admin. R., Ex.7, Tr. 13, June 26, 2015 (Tr.).) Plaintiff needed the key so that he could have access to the airfield. See id. at 16. Over the course of the next few years, various incidents occurred which involved Plaintiff and which will be discussed later in this Decision.

         On February 14, 2014, a law firm representing RIAC advised Plaintiff in a certified letter that he was prohibited from entering the North Central premises. See Admin. R., Ex. 3 (Trespass Letter). A carbon copy of the Trespass Letter was sent, via e-mail, to Plaintiff's counsel. Id. The Trespass Letter stated in its entirety:

"This firm represents the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (the 'RIAC').
"Please be advised that you are not allowed to enter the premises of North Central State Airport. If you ignore this directive, you will be deemed a trespasser pursuant to Rhode Island General Laws Section 11-44-26 and RIAC will take appropriate action." Id.

         The Trespass Letter was signed by an attorney from the firm and did not include or append any other information. See id.

         It is undisputed that several days after the Trespass Letter was mailed to Plaintiff, he went to North Central to attend a safety seminar conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).[1] Police officers escorted Plaintiff from the seminar, and he subsequently was charged as a criminal trespasser in violation of § 11-44-26. During the ensuing criminal proceedings, a justice of this Court granted a motion in limine to exclude the Trespass Letter from being introduced as evidence at trial. Thereafter, the state dropped the criminal trespass charges against Plaintiff.

         In May 2015, RIAC issued a Notice of Hearing entitled, "In the Matter of Lifting of No Trespass Notice Issued to Kevin Blais." (Admin. R., Ex.1 at 1.) The Notice stated that the hearing would take place at North Central on June 26, 2015. See id. The Notice then explained that a Hearing Officer[2]

"has been engaged to investigate the facts concerning the potential lifting of the No Trespass issued to Kevin Blais in connection with the North Central Airport. In connection with that investigation, [the Hearing Officer] will hold the within-referenced public hearing and take evidence and testimony from anyone who wishes to be heard. The hearing will be held solely for investigatory purposes and will not proceed in the manner of a formal adversarial adjudication. Following the hearing, [the Hearing Officer] will make a recommendation to the Executive Director regarding whether the No Trespass should be lifted and, if so, under what, if any, restrictions. [The Hearing Officer's] report and recommendation will not constitute a final determination of the matter. The Executive Director shall make such final determination following a review of the report and recommendation." Id. In addition, the Notice stated that "Respondent has the right to be represented by legal counsel, by himself, or by a person of his choice . . . [,]" and that "Respondent and other persons attending the hearing should bring all evidence bearing on the case, including any records or other documents."

Id. at 2.

         The Plaintiff did not attend the scheduled hearing, but he was represented by counsel who entered an appearance on his behalf. See Tr. 4-5. At the hearing, Plaintiff's counsel questioned RIAC's authority to conduct a "nonadversarial hearing[,]" particularly in light of the fact that the Hearing Officer had offered him an opportunity to cross examine witnesses. See id. at 5-6. Counsel for RIAC rejected an offer to respond to the objection. See id. at 6. The Hearing Officer later proposed reconvening the hearing to allow Plaintiff the opportunity to attend; however, Plaintiff's counsel declined the offer. See id. at 26.

         Nine witnesses testified and were cross examined at the hearing: Frank Sherman, Paul Harry Smith, Edouard Norbert DeCelles, Paul Carroll, David LaChapelle, John Guerin, John Sulyma, Kevin Peter DiLorenzo, Lance Eskelund, and Raymond A. Venticinque. The witnesses described their encounters with Plaintiff.


         Frank Sherman

         Flight Instructor Frank Sherman testified that late one afternoon, he and a female student landed at North Central under "terrible" visibility conditions. Id. at 7. As they were in the process of landing, he heard Plaintiff "make a radio call that he was like on a four-mile base for Runway 23." Id. Knowing how poor visibility was at the time, Mr. Sherman "suggested[,]" over the open radio airwave, "that that wasn't a good way to come into the traffic pattern." Id. at 8.

         Mr. Sherman then testified that after Plaintiff landed his airplane, he "came over to me in the most belligerent, violent way that you could imagine. I was somewhat frightened. The woman that I was flying with was frightened." Id. at 8. During the encounter, Plaintiff accused Mr. Sherman of being an "unfit person" because he was "trying to teach people to fly on the radio, and that [Mr. Sherman] was using the common traffic advisory frequency in a way that should not be used . . . ." Mr. Sherman testified that, in fact, he had been using the radio "in the way it was supposed to be used." Id. at 9. He also testified that

"Ultimately I just told him [Plaintiff] . . . to dig a big hole and jump in it? This is what I really felt. He just didn't belong. This is the event I had with him. It just makes me feel he's not a person that I want around this airport." Id. at 8.

         Later, he stated, "You know, if [Plaintiff] could behave like a normal human being, he would be welcomed. I'm afraid that he is unable to do that." Id. at 10.

          During cross examination, the following colloquy took place:

"Q. The reason you don't want [Plaintiff] around is you think he's rude, correct?
"A. I think it's worse than that, sir.
"Q. It's worse than rude?
"A. Yes.
"Q. It's what, really rude?
"A. Really dangerous.
"Q. Dangerously rude?
"A. Yes." Id. at 12.


         Paul Harry Smith

         Airport Manager Paul Harry Smith testified that in early 2010, Plaintiff told Mr. Smith that he had purchased an aircraft and needed a gate key to North Central. Id. at 13-14. Gate keys are available to individuals who "have an operational need to be on the field, [so that they] can have access." Id. at 16. Mr. Smith arranged for Plaintiff to receive a key. Id. at 14.

         On January 11, 2014, Plaintiff entered Mr. Smith's office and demanded to know who had turned off his gate key. Id. at 16; see also Admin. R., Ex. 4 (Ex. 4) ("Why won't my gate key work. I tried to get on the field and my key would not work."). Apparently, Plaintiff's "gate key fob was turned off when aircraft N3071D was removed from the airfield on September of 2013." Id. Mr. Smith explained that Plaintiff did not need a key because he no longer kept an aircraft at North Central. See id. and Tr. 16. The confrontation escalated such that Plaintiff told Mr. Smith that "bad karma [was] coming [his] way[,]" and that he (Mr. Smith) "could not be that much of a fucking dick." (Tr. 16); see also Ex. 4. Mr. Smith testified that it was at that point that he "felt really threatened" and called RIAC police. Id. According to Mr. Smith, when he told Plaintiff that he had called RIAC police, Plaintiff left the office. (Tr. 24; Ex. 4.) Mr. Smith also testified that three of his five subordinates have reported feeling unsafe in Plaintiff's presence. (Tr. 19-20.)

         On cross examination, Mr. Smith admitted that Plaintiff had never hit him, id. at 24, laid a hand on him, id., or touched him. Id. at 25. He also admitted that he had never seen Plaintiff ever touch, batter, or draw a weapon on any of the witnesses who were present at the hearing. Id.


         Edouard Norbert DeCelles

         Edouard Norbert DeCelles testified that he was a friend of Plaintiff who had been helping Plaintiff to obtain his pilot's license. Id. at 29. According to Mr. DeCelles, various members of the "aviation community" previously had filed complaints against Plaintiff, and Plaintiff was frustrated when the incident involving Mr. Sherman occurred. Id. at 30. Specifically he testified:

"There is a group of people at this airport who don't like [Plaintiff]. They just keep attacking him. He has been attacked enough that he just retaliated. That's what happened. He yelled at him. I would have yelled . . . too." Id. at 30-31.


         Paul Carroll

         Next to testify was Paul Carroll-a pilot with almost forty years of experience who previously had been appointed by the FAA to a volunteer position to help promote airline safety. Id at 31-32. He testified about how Plaintiff, when "he was a new student pilot with very little time[,]" had "bragged" about flying "into the clouds, which is an extremely dangerous position for a private pilot, let alone a student pilot . . . ." Id. at 32. Mr. Carroll testified that Plaintiff did not have an "instrument rating to fly into the clouds[,]" and that he was bragging about doing it because "he just wanted to see what it was like . . . ." Id. at 33. When Mr. Carroll warned Plaintiff about the dangerousness of such behavior-both to himself and people on the ground- Plaintiff "seemed to fluff it off. It was almost like careless or callous." Id.

         Mr. Carroll later testified that he thought Plaintiff had a cavalier attitude towards the FAA rules, and that he had filed complaints against Plaintiff "for difficult and erratic behavior." Id. at 34-35. One of the complaints involved an incident in which Plaintiff crossed an active runway directly in front of Mr. Carroll as he was about to land his aircraft. Id. at 35. According to Mr. Carroll, he did not confront Plaintiff about the incident because Plaintiff previously had threatened him. See id. at 35.

         Mr. Carroll further testified that one morning, Plaintiff "told me directly that he has a permit to carry a gun, and he wears a bullet proof vest[,]" and that later that same morning, Plaintiff threatened to report Mr. Carroll to the FAA. Id. at 36 and 44; see also id. at 36 (stating that Plaintiff said "I'm going to call the FAA ...

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