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Discrimination Suit Against Continental Airlines Goes Forward

On October 18, 2002, a federal district judge denied a motion to dismiss two federal civil rights lawsuits alleging that Continental Airlines discriminated against passengers in removing them from a flight. In his ruling, Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise of the United States District Court in New Jersey said that the ACLU had "sufficiently alleged" that their clients' removal from the flight "was the product of intentional discrimination . . . not of a rational determination that their presence was inimical to safety.'"

"This ruling is significant because it recognizes the balance between safety and freedom that we are striving so hard to achieve since September 11," said Reginald Shuford, an ACLU national staff attorney who argued the case. "Airlines cannot simply accede to discriminatory desires of another passenger."

The lawsuits were filed by the ACLU of New Jersey and the National ACLU on behalf of Michael Dasrath, an American citizen born in Guyana; Edgardo Cureg, a permanent resident from the Philippines; and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A Continental pilot ejected Mr. Dasrath and Mr. Cureg from their flight last New Year's Eve after another passenger complained to the pilot about the presence of "brown-skinned men."

As explained in the complaint, both Mr. Dasrath and Mr. Cureg were bumped up to First Class and assigned seats near each other by Continental. Mr. Cureg was bumped up due to his frequent flier miles; Mr. Dasrath due to being the husband of a Continental employee. The two men did not know each other. While they were in their seats and the plane was still at the gate, Mr. Cureg's mathematics professor, who is of Indian descent, sat across the aisle from Mr. Cureg and held a conversation. Mr. Dasrath sat silently behind them. He then noticed a woman carrying a poodle come up from coach and stare at them. The female passenger called over the pilot to complain that the "brown-skinned men are behaving suspiciously." Without questioning the woman as to what the behaviors were, Mr. Darath, Mr. Cureg, and Mr. Cureg's professor were then thrown off of the flight. Although Continental now claims the basis of their being thrown off was for security, the men were placed on a later flight without ever being subjected to any additional security before reboarding.

Continental Airlines argued in their motion to dismiss the case that compliance with state and federal civil rights laws would conflict with their employees' duty to use discretion in determining who should fly. Judge Debevoise rejected that argument, declaring that "a racially motivated removal would not be sheltered" by laws granting pilots discretion.

The decision came less than one week after a federal judge in California permitted similar claims against United Airlines to proceed, saying that pilots' discretion "does not grant them a license to discriminate." That case, Bayaa, et al. v. United Airlines, was filed by the ACLU along with four other cases on behalf of men who were ejected from flights based on the prejudices of airline employees and passengers and for reasons wholly unrelated to security.

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