United Flyer Can Pursue Defamation Claim


     (CN) – A South African man who says United Airlines flight attendants discriminated against him and wrongly had him removed from an airplane in March 2011, can’t pursue claims of false imprisonment or conspiracy, but can still sue for defamation, a federal judge ruled.



     Clifford Press, claims that while inquiring where to dispose of garbage on a flight from Denver to New York, an African-American flight attendant named Sharon Brando “became aggressive and domineering towards Mr. Press” due to his race.
     Following a terse exchange, the complaint says, Press placed the trash he was holding on the floor between himself and Brando and returned to his seat.
     There he was approached by another flight attendant, Gina Algano, came over to him and told him to get up and dispose of his trash, which he refused to do because he did not want to encounter Brando again.
     Press claims that Algano then told him that “if he did not get up and dispose of his trash, she would ensure that he was declared a security threat and taken off the plane when they arrived in New York.” When he again refused, Press says she and other flight attendants followed through on the threat, declaring him a “level one security threat” and describing his behavior to authorities as “disruptive.”
     He says when the plane touched down, “passengers were instructed to remain in their seats” and “several Port Authority police officers boarded the plane” and removed him for questioning in full view of all the passengers.
     He was released after thirty minutes of questioning and had a complaint filed by the FAA against him in September 2011, alleging “failure to comply with instructions of crew members” and claiming he threatened a crew member on the plane. He filed his lawsuit in December 2011, claiming false imprisonment and defamation, in addition to breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
     Press also claims an e-mail was circulated by the flight attendants about the incident that contained many factual errors.
     The state-level claims against United Airlines of Mr. Press were dismissed by Judge Richard Caputo “because United is a private corporation” and “it does not act under color of state law.” Caputo continues; “Mr. Press argues that the United employees became state actors by conspiring with the Port Authority, but the complaint fails to plausibly allege a conspiracy.” Caputo says “in order to prove a conspiracy existed, a plaintiff must present enough factual matter to suggest than an agreement was made,” which Press does not in his complaint.
     Caputo continues “United did not import the Port Authority into their alleged conspiracy merely by calling them for assistance, and the Port Authority’s standard response to the call does not constitute an agreement.”
     Caputo did rule that Press’ defamation claim held water; “Mr. Press’ claims arising out of actions taken after the plane had landed – his alleged false imprisonment and the alleged defamatory e-mail – would fall outside the preempted field of aviation safety.” For this reason, “Press’ complaint alleges actions taken by the flight crew that go beyond FAA safety regulations -e.g. making defamatory comments, intentionally trying to humiliate him and conspiring to have him arrested.”
     Caputo says there is also conflict between New York law, which applies to where the incident took place, and Pennsylvania law, which is where he lives, in terms of rules regarding damages for emotional distress. Caputo says New York law must be applied on emotional distress issues because “New York has more significant contracts” in their laws, but says it’s undecided what state’s law should be applied for breach of contract and defamation “until the parties present further evidence.”
     Caputo ended up in total dismissing Press’ claims for false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress, but would not dismiss his claims per United’s request for breach of contract and defamation. He states that Press “must file an amended complaint with a proper statement of subject matter jurisdiction” for the remaining claims left in the case.

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