Judge allows some claims in racial discrimination suit against US Airways to move forward

By Jon Campisi | Oct 22, 2013

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted in part, and denied in part a

dismissal motion by US Airways in a case brought by a black family who claims they were removed from an Orlando-bound flight, causing them to miss the first day of their vacation.

In an Oct. 18 memorandum opinion, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, allowed the main crux of the litigation, a federal civil rights claim, to proceed against the airline.

Plaintiff Sharnae Adams filed suit in early July 2012 against US Airlines over claims that she and others in her party – they consisted of four adults and three children – were tossed off the flight following an altercation inside the cabin of the plane prior to takeoff.

The lawsuit, which was originally filed at Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court and later transferred to the federal venue, accused the airline of race discrimination and negligence claims in connection with a July 5, 2010, incident in which the plaintiff says she and the others were made to get off the Philadelphia-to-Orlando flight following an altercation with an off-duty US Airways flight attendant.

The complaint says that once the plaintiff and her family members were seated, everyone was able to fasten their seatbelts with the exception of Malaki Adams, a toddler with Down syndrome.

When no flight attendant answered the plaintiff’s calls for help, Sharnae Adams moved her son to a different seat across the aisle.

At this point, it was alleged that the off-duty flight attendant, who claimed at the time to be a federal air marshal, became involved, telling the plaintiff that she was violating federal law, the lawsuit states.

The off-duty flight attendant then allegedly used a racially derogatory statement in reference to the plaintiff and gave the woman the middle finger.

Tyrone Mitchell, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, alleged he then overheard working flight attendants saying “the black people” were causing trouble on the plane.

The plane, which was preparing for takeoff at the time, had to return to the terminal where the plaintiffs were ordered off the flight, the complaint states.

The suit goes on to state that an unidentified US Airways employee referred to the African American passengers as “you people,” and that the plane’s captain warned the plaintiffs to “keep their mouths shut” or else they would be removed from another flight.

The passengers were ultimately placed on a later flight to Orlando, but as a result of the incident they missed the first day of their vacation.

In his ruling, Goldberg let survive the state law negligence claims against the airline, denying the defense’s petition to dismiss those counts from the litigation based on an argument that the claims were preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act.

Defense attorneys had also argued that the plaintiffs failed to adequately state their negligence claims, which included negligent screening and hiring, negligent staff training, and negligent breach of duty of common carrier.

Mitchell initially noted that the plaintiffs claims were ordinary negligence claims, and don’t appear to expressly reference a subject preempted by the Deregulation Act, which was enacted to promote “maximum reliance” on market forces by reducing airline regulation.

And in the end, the judge ended up ruling that the negligence claims could move forward at this stage of the litigation, since the Deregulation Act doesn’t seem to preempt the plaintiffs’ claims.

“We cannot conclude, based solely on the pleadings, that Plaintiffs’ negligence claim relates to the service of an airline,” Goldberg wrote. “No factual record has been developed on the duties of a flight attendant flying on an employee pass or on how the altercation originated.”

The judge was referencing the off-duty flight attendant posing as an air marshal, who was flying on what is commonly referred to as a “buddy pass.”

The alleged comments and gesture made by the off-duty US Airways flight attendant “bears no clear relation to an airline service, though that could become apparent through the course of discovery,” the judge wrote.

Goldberg also determined that the captain’s alleged decision to remove all African American passengers from the flight and his alleged “hostile parting comments, all on the heels of an overtly racial argument, give rise to an inference that the captain intentionally discriminated against Plaintiffs when he removed them from the plane.”

In refusing to dismiss the Section 1981 racial discrimination claim against the airline, Goldberg determined that the plaintiffs pled facts sufficient to state a plausible claim that their removal from the aircraft was motivated by racial discrimination and not safety concerns.

Goldberg, however, did agree to dismiss emotional distress claims from the litigation, writing that the plaintiffs haven’t alleged any bodily harm as a result of the flight staff’s actions, meaning the airline cannot be held vicariously liable for such a claim.

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