Friday, March 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fewer Guests Can Allege Reservation Race Bias

CHICAGO (CN) - Tackling a controversial technical question, the 7th Circuit affirmed dismissal of 224 plaintiffs from a suit claimed that racial discrimination motivated a Baton Rouge Marriott to cancel their reservation.

James Piggee and Giving Education Meaningful Substance have taken groups of black high school students on tours of historically black universities to make them more aware of their academic opportunities.

In April 2008, Piggee planned a trip to Louisiana and Texas for more than 150 students. The group reserved 41 rooms at the Marriott in Baton Rouge, but they had to drive through the night to their next destination in Texas when the Marriott later canceled the reservation. Piggee filed suit in Indiana for himself, the student attendees, and the chaperones, alleging a host of civil rights claims and breach of contract.

Marriott served discovery requests on all 268 plaintiffs in December 2009. After numerous extensions, Marriott filed a motion to compel a response to discovery, five months after the original deadline. The plaintiffs missed that deadline as well.

Marriott filed a motion for sanctions and contempt, seeking dismissal and payment for expenses. U.S. District Judge Philip Simon in Hammond, Ind., declined to dismiss the case, but granted the request for expenses.

Simon directed plaintiffs' attorney Trent A. McCain to comply with the order by Aug. 17, making it clear that this was the "final extension" that would be granted.

When McCain missed the deadline for a fifth time, he reported that he had communicated with only 75 to 100 of the plaintiffs, leading the court to conclude that the majority were unaware that a suit had been filed in their name.

On Nov. 10, 2010, the court dismissed the 224 plaintiffs who had not responded. McCain appealed on their behalf the following month, but he voluntarily dismissed 171 of the appellants after discovering that they should not have been a part of the case to begin with.

During its preliminary review, the 7th Circuit directed McCain to obtain a jurisdictional memorandum from the District Court to certify appealability. On Janu. 7, the District Court found that the appellants' claims are separate from the claims of the remaining plaintiffs, and that the decision to dismiss constituted a final judgment for the appellants.

Marriott challenged the appeal, arguing that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prevent the 7th Circuit from reviewing the lower court ruling, citing the Supreme Court's decision in FirsTier Mortgage Co. v Investors Mortgage Insurance Co.

"In the context of a case with multiple, separable claims, the holding of FirsTier could take on two meanings," Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the 7th Circuit's three-judge panel. "The Supreme Court's warning that Rule 4(a)(2) should only apply when a decision would be appealable if immediately followed by the entry of judgment ... could be interpreted to mean that nothing can stand between the decision rendered and the appealability of that decision but the ministerial task of actually entering judgment on the docket. This is the interpretation that Marriott advances."

Under Marriott's interpretation, the plaintiffs' notice of appeal should be considered to be filed on Jan. 7, the date the court ruled the motion for entry of final judgment. Under those circumstances, the appeal would fall outside of the circuit's 30-day deadline, and is thus time-barred.

"Alternatively, FirsTier can be read to hold that Rule 4(a)(2) will save a premature notice if, regarding the claim being appealed, the entry of judgment is all that is left for the court to do. Under this more lenient reading, the dismissal of a single claim or party in a multi-claim case would be an immediately appealable decision had the entry of judgment directly followed the dismissal," Flaum continued.

"It is clear that we have decided that the more lenient interpretation is the correct one. ... It is reasonable, we think, for an unsophisticated litigant to believe that he could appeal a court's decision to throw out his only claim despite the existence of other claims still being."

The court affirmed McCain's ability to appeal the suit but declined to overturn the dismissal after finding that the District Court had acted reasonably.

"Appellants missed five discovery deadlines and violated two court orders," Flaum wrote. "They completely failed to respond to numerous interrogatories. ... Perhaps most telling was counsel's inability to even speak with the majority of the plaintiffs that he was supposed to be representing."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.