In Wright-Phillips v. United Airlines, Inc. et al., the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied United Airlines’ motion to dismiss certain discrimination and tort claims brought by a passenger.

The plaintiff, who “identifies herself as Black,” alleged that while aboard a United flight from Los Angeles to Newark, a flight attendant – “who appeared racially white” – refused the plaintiff’s repeated requests for supplemental oxygen to assist with her breathing troubles caused by an anxiety attack and waited more than fifteen minutes before seeking assistance from a doctor aboard the flight. Upon landing at Newark Airport, the New Jersey Port Authority Police escorted the plaintiff off the flight, and detained and questioned her, informing her that the flight crew reported her as a “disturbance” on the flight.

Plaintiff claimed these actions were racially motivated. Plaintiff asserted that she is a frequent flyer of United and never had prior issues requesting or receiving supplemental oxygen to treat her anxiety. The plaintiff further alleged that the flight attendant treated white passengers differently than her claiming that the flight attendant raised her voice with the plaintiff only to then kneel before a white passenger and ask, “are you okay after that?” Moreover, during beverage service, the flight attendant only served a white passenger in her row while the plaintiff was served by a Black flight attendant. Finally, Plaintiff noted that while detained by police, another passenger approached the officers and told them “there was no reason for [her] to be detained.” Plaintiff was released without any charges.

United successfully moved to dismiss six of the twelve claims asserted against it by Plaintiff, but the court held that the plaintiff could proceed on the remaining six claims, including for discrimination in places of public accommodation, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The court held that both the flight and the gate at Newark Airport, where the police detained and questioned Plaintiff, represented places of public accommodation under the NJLAD. The court further determined that Plaintiff’s allegations, which must be accepted as true for purposes of a motion to dismiss, were sufficient to state a claim that she was denied equal treatment based on her race. In so holding, the court focused on the plaintiff’s allegations that the flight attendant’s actions were motivated by race because the flight attendant’s refusal to provide the supplemental oxygen was unsupported by flight rules and the flight attendant’s interactions with white passengers were markedly different. Wright-Phillips v. United Airlines, Inc. et al., No. 20-cv-14609, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63925 (D.N.J Apr. 1, 2021).

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