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GIBBS v. AMERICAN AIRLINES

March 8, 2002

DR. NEVILLE GIBBS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Dr. Neville Gibbs ("Dr. Gibbs"), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981") alleging that defendant, American Airlines Corporation ("American Airlines") discriminated against him based upon his race by removing him from a flight after he had a verbal altercation with a flight attendant. Before the court is American Airlines' motion for summary judgment. American Airlines contends that Dr. Gibbs' claim is barred under the Warsaw Convention*fn1 because the alleged discrimination took place during an international flight, and in the alternative that Dr. Gibbs has failed to make out a prima facie case under Section 1981. Because the Warsaw Convention preempts Dr. Gibbs' Section 1981 claim and he cannot recover under the Convention itself, the motion of American Airlines must be granted.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
This action arises from events that transpired before takeoff on an American Airlines flight from Miami to Trinidad in February, 1999. The following account of those events is set forth in the light most favorable to Dr. Gibbs.
On February 6, 1999, Dr. Gibbs, an African American, and two companions, Pierre Cumbo ("Cumbo") and Dr. Lennox E. Joseph ("Dr. Joseph"), also African Americans, traveled from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. to Miami International Airport on an American Airlines flight. In Miami they transferred to American Airlines flight #1819 to Picaro, Trinidad. After boarding flight #1819, Dr. Gibbs and his companions took their seats. Dr. Gibbs sat in the row directly in front of Cumbo and Dr. Joseph.
After the plane then taxied onto the runway and was in a holding pattern, an announcement was made that landing immigration cards would be distributed while the plane was awaiting takeoff. A flight attendant, later identified as Jerri Bell ("Bell"), came down the aisle distributing the cards. Dr. Gibbs and his companions noticed that Bell seemed upset and angry. When Dr. Joseph greeted Bell and asked her how things were going, Bell replied that it had been a "rough day." She then leaned over to Dr. Joseph and commented in an allegedly "derogatory" tone of voice that the "black people" on the plane were misbehaving, and that her white colleagues were asking her why the "black people" were behaving that way. Bell also stated that the behavior of the "black people" on the plane was embarrassing to her as a black person.*fn2
Dr. Gibbs, seated in the row in front of Cumbo and Dr. Joseph, could not hear what Bell said but observed her speaking with his companions and leaned back to ask what they were discussing. In response, Bell allegedly became "very confrontational" and snapped, "That's exactly what I'm talking about!" She then approached Dr. Gibbs, leaned in close to his face, and shook her finger at him while loudly repeating, "That is none of your business." Dr. Gibbs told Bell she was being rude, to which she allegedly responded in a heated voice, "I could put you off this plane!"
Bell then departed and returned a few minutes later with James Morello ("Morello"), the aircraft's purser. Morello handed Dr. Gibbs an official warning card containing language based upon 14 C.F.R. § 91.11 (stating that "[n]o person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated"). Dr. Gibbs refused to accept the warning and requested that Morello question surrounding passengers to verify what had transpired between him and Bell. Dr. Gibbs alleges that two passengers verified his version of events, but were ignored by Morello, and that other passengers protested the way he was being treated by Morello and Bell.
Morello and Bell departed, and a few minutes later the plane returned to the gate. A man dressed in a uniform and two police officers from the Dade County Police Department then came down the aisle toward Dr. Gibbs. According to a police report, Bell had told them that Dr. Gibbs was an "unruly passenger" who had been involved in a "verbal altercation" with her. The officers told Dr. Gibbs that the Captain had ordered his removal from the plane.*fn3 Dr. Gibbs complied. Thereafter he was escorted by the police into the terminal. He was accompanied by his two companions, who decided to leave the plane with him.*fn4
Dr. Gibbs was detained by the police in the terminal and questioned about his conduct on the plane. After Dr. Gibbs explained his version of the incident, the police decided that no criminal activity had occurred and released him. American Airlines facilitated his accommodations in Miami that night and his flight to Trinidad the next day. Upon arriving in Trinidad, Dr. Gibbs learned that many persons traveling there had heard about the events on flight # 1819.
Dr. Gibbs claims that he did not scream at Bell or use any language that could be deemed to threaten or harass her. He alleges that as a result of the actions taken by American Airlines personnel he has suffered "significant public embarrassment and humiliation, loss of self esteem, mental anguish and severe emotional trauma resulting in periods of sleeplessness, headaches, frequent gastrointestinal discomfort and loss of appetite."
In his complaint, Dr. Gibbs alleged common law tort and contract claims, as well as statutory discrimination claims under Section 1981 and the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41310 ("Section 41310"). Dr. Gibbs subsequently conceded that his common law claims were preempted by the Warsaw Convention and that Section 41310 does not provide a private cause of action, leaving only his Section 1981 claim in dispute.
II. ANALYSIS
A. Summary Judgment ...

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