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SW Airlines Must Face Racial Bias Claim

SAN FRANCSICO (CN) - A federal judge denied Southwest Airlines' motion to dismiss an ejected passenger's claim of racial discrimination.

Rufus Mercer, a 52-year-old black man, claims he was boarding a flight with his fiancée at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2012 when the pilot removed him from the flight based on his race.

Mercer was storing his and his fiancée's carry-on bags when a white flight attendant approached him and told him that he was over the two-item limit. Mercer said he explained that the third bag belonged to his fiancée, who had already taken her seat, but the flight attendant continued reprimanding him in a "nasty, discriminatory and racially charged voice."

Mercer claimed that a white male passenger had boarded the plane carrying a clearly oversized guitar case, which went by the plane's crew without comment.

After t he confrontation of Mercer, the flight attendant went into the cockpit to speak to the pilot, who was able to see Mercer down the aisle and therefore observe his race. The flight attendant's supervisor then approached Mercer to tell him he was being removed from the flight. Mercer says he and his fiancée got off the plane feeling "unbearable humiliation, distress and anguish."

Southwest sought to dismiss the complaint, claiming the pilot's removal of Mercer was motivated by safety rather by racial discrimination.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James denied Southwest's motion on Dec. 18, finding that Mercer's allegations seemed to indicate intentional discrimination.

Mercer's attorney Patricia Barlow called it "a big victory" in an interview with Courthouse News.

"These sorts of claims are very difficult to move forward, so there's a lot at stake," Barlow said.

Southwest's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Mercer seeks punitive damages.

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