ACLU, ADC and Relman Law Firm Sue Four Major Airlines Over Discrimination Against Passengers

June 4, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–Five sweeping civil rights lawsuits filed across the country today accuse American, Continental, Northwest and United Airlines of blatant discrimination against five men who were ejected from flights based on the prejudices of airline employees and passengers and for reasons wholly unrelated to security.

The lawsuits were filed in Los Angeles, Maryland, New Jersey and San Francisco by the American Civil Liberties Union and Relman & Associates, a Washington-based civil rights law firm, on behalf of the five men and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Four of the passengers are United States citizens and the fifth is a permanent legal resident; two of the five are of Arab descent.

“In ejecting our clients from their flights, the airlines were indulging in discrimination, not enforcing security, and that is both shameful and unlawful,” said Reginald Shuford, an ACLU national staff attorney who filed three of the cases today. “You don’t have to be a security expert to know that what happened to these men had everything to do with bias and nothing to do with safety.”

At a news conference in New York, ACLU clients Michael Dasrath and Edgardo Cureg, who were removed from the same Continental Airlines flight from New Jersey to Tampa on New Year’s Eve, described their experiences.

Dasrath, 32, a U.S. citizen born in Guyana, had taken his seat in first class when he noticed a woman with a small dog glaring at him and several other passengers seated nearby. He heard her tell the captain, “Those brown-skinned men are behaving suspiciously.” Moments later, he, Cureg and another man were removed from the plane.

“I was working in Manhattan on September 11 and I will never forget the horror of that day,” said Dasrath. “But ejecting me from a flight to make a passenger feel better isn’t going to make anyone any safer.”

Cureg, 34, a permanent legal resident of Filipino descent, had never met Michael Dasrath but at the airport gate he did run into a Sri Lankan professor from his university, where he is a doctoral student in mathematics. While they waited to board, Cureg loaned the professor his cell phone. Once they met again on board, Cureg retrieved the phone to call his relatives. Soon after, he was among those removed from the plane.

“Even though I made it safely to my final destination that day, I will never again feel free to travel in the future, because my basic right to travel free from discrimination has been grossly violated,” Cureg said. “The plane I was booked on left without me, and it was 11:30 p.m. before I arrived home. I spent the saddest New Year’s Eve of my life alone, exhausted and depressed, with a bitter taste that lingers in my soul to this day.”

Dasrath and Cureg’s cases are two of five being filed today. While details of the incidents vary, the cases share certain key elements: the men are all of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance; they had all passed rigorous security checks and were cleared to board; they were all ejected after passengers or flight crews said that they “felt uncomfortable” with them on board; they were all immediately offered seats on subsequent flights without any further security checks; and the incidents all occurred more than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, some as late as New Year’s Eve.

Collectively, the lawsuits ask four federal courts to declare that the airlines’ actions violated the men’s civil rights and to order that airlines implement measures to prevent future discrimination.

In addition to Dasrath and Cureg, the other individuals named in today’s cases are:

  • Assem Bayaa, 40, a U.S. citizen from Long Beach, CA, ejected from United Airlines Flight 10 (Los Angeles to New York) on December 23, 2001
  • Arshad Chowdhury, 25, a U.S. citizen from Pittsburgh, PA, ejected from Northwest Airlines Flight 342 (San Francisco to Pittsburgh) on October 23, 2001
  • Hassan Sader, 36, a U.S. citizen from Virginia, ejected from American Airlines Flight 1531 (Baltimore to Chicago) on October 31, 2001.

The ACLU noted that as early as September 21, 2001, the DOT sent e-mail to several major airlines cautioning them not to discriminate against passengers based on race, color or national or ethnic origin. The DOT repeated the warning in October, saying, “it is important to reemphasize that in performing our critical duties, we may not rely on generalized stereotypes or attitudes or beliefs about the propensity of members of any racial, ethnic, religious or national origin group to engage in unlawful activity.”

Statistics from the Department of Transportation demonstrate the need for repeated warnings to the airlines: between January and March 2002 — the first period for which these numbers are available — the DOT documented 84 complaints of discrimination by air carriers.

A complete list of the attorneys and clients in each of the cases is online at The attorneys in the New Jersey cases are: Shuford, Vincent Warren and Spencer Freedman of the ACLU national office; and Edward Barocas and J.C. Salyer of the ACLU of New Jersey. Shuford is also an attorney in the Los Angeles case brought on behalf of Assem Bayaa.

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