By Spencer S. Hsu and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
JetBlue Airways and two officials with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration have paid $240,000 to settle charges that they illegally discriminated against an Iraqi-born U.S. resident who was barred from a flight until he covered his T-shirt, which carried an Arabic phrase, his attorneys announced yesterday.
The settlement paid Friday to Raed Jarrar, 30, of the District, ranks among the largest of its kind since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented him. The payment came as another U.S. airline apologized to nine Muslim American passengers from the Washington area who were removed from a New Year's Day flight out of Reagan National Airport, prompting a discrimination complaint by a Muslim civil rights group.
Such cases are rare and six-figure settlements or court victories even rarer, civil rights lawyers said, because airline pilots have wide discretion to decide who flies aboard their aircraft and it is difficult to prove that passengers should be awarded damages when airlines have offered them other flights.
"The outcome of this case is a victory for free speech and a blow to the discriminatory practice of racial profiling," said Aden Fine, senior staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "This settlement should send a clear message to all TSA officials and airlines that they cannot discriminate against passengers based on their race or the ethnic content of their speech."
Jarrar, a U.S. legal permanent resident who immigrated in 2005 with his wife, an American citizen, alleged that he was barred from boarding an August 2006 flight to Oakland, Calif., because he wore a T-shirt that read "We Will Not Be Silent" in English and Arabic. He was not permitted to board until he covered his shirt and then was re-seated at the rear of the plane.
"I proved my point. And now I think it's pretty clear what they did to me was very wrong and should not be repeated with anyone," said Jarrar, who said he is employed by the American Friends Service Committee.
Representatives of JetBlue and TSA employees Garfield Harris, a supervisory inspector at Kennedy airport, and Franco Trotto, formerly at JFK and now a screening manager at Orlando International Airport, denied wrongdoing and said the case was settled to limit legal costs.
"JetBlue continues to deny, outright, every critical aspect of Mr. Jarrar's version of events," airline spokeswoman Alison Croyle said in an e-mailed statement. Croyle added, "JetBlue believes diversity adds great strength to our company; diversity among our crewmembers as well as our customers."
Harris and Trotto were represented by the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York, which declined to comment on the settlement. TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency "does not condone any type of racial discrimination. We do not condone profiling in any way shape or form." The agency was not named in the suit.
Out of 1,022 complaints against airlines filed with the Transportation Department since 2001, the agency has taken four administrative enforcement actions, according to data released by DOT spokesman Bill Mosley. The actions were consent orders dealing with United, Continental, Delta and American airlines in 2003 and 2004, in which the carriers acknowledged no wrongdoing but pledged to spend at least $4.4 million to expand training for workers.
The TSA has received about 1,080 civil rights complaints about its personnel since 2001, White said, but he declined to specify how many of the complaints had led to sanctions.
"We do not tabulate the data into neatly defined categories," the spokesman said.
U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security and former chairwoman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said she had called for a hearing on the complaints. "Congress has an obligation to get to the bottom of these incidents, which smack of deliberate and clumsy discrimination, and to offer guidance," Norton said.
Michael T. Kirkpatrick, a lawyer with Public Citizen, said most of the federal lawsuits against airlines have been dismissed or settled confidentially.
Kirkpatrick represented John D. Cerqueira, a U.S. citizen of Portuguese descent who was taken off a December 2003 flight from Boston to Fort Lauderdale. A federal jury in Boston awarded Cerqueira $400,000 in damages from American Airlines , but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that decision last year and the Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
"In a lot of cases, the monetary value is relatively low, and so these cases are driven to early settlement just because of the economic factors," Kirkpatrick said. However, he said, cases of discrimination continue and could prompt action from Congress or a different ruling from another federal appeals court.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the nine AirTran passengers ejected last week are considering their legal options.
Staff writer Amy Gardner and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.