Wright-Phillips v. United Airlines, Inc.

Decision Date01 April 2021
Docket NumberCiv. No. 20-14609 (KM) (ESK)
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey


Leanne Wright-Phillips suffered an anxiety attack while aboard a United Airlines flight, but the flight attendant refused to supply her with requested oxygen. Then, when the plane landed in Newark, United employees had the New Jersey Port Authority Police detain and question Wright-Phillips for causing a disruption. Wright-Phillips alleges that this was all motivated by her race (she identifies herself as Black), so she brings civil-rights and tort claims against United, the unidentified flight attendant ("Madison Roe"), and the unidentified pilot ("John Doe"). United moves to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). (DE 20.)1 For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

A. Facts

Wright-Phillips frequently flies with United. (Am. Compl. ¶ 18.) Like other flyers, she occasionally suffers from anxiety during air travel. (Id. ¶ 19.) Medication usually keeps her anxiety at bay, but sometimes she has trouble breathing and asks for supplemental oxygen. (Id. ¶ 22.) Flight crews keep supplemental oxygen on board, and she had never had any problem requesting and receiving it. (Id. ¶¶ 22-27.)

Wright-Phillips flew on a United flight from Los Angeles to Newark. (Id. ¶ 28.) Turbulence triggered her anxiety, and she began to struggle to breathe, although she had taken medication. (Id. ¶ 32.) She rang for a flight attendant, and Roe, a flight attendant who appeared racially white, came to her seat. (Id. ¶¶ 33-35.) She told Roe, "I suffer with anxiety on flights at times and I know how it starts, I am struggling to breathe." She asked Roe for supplemental oxygen. (Id. ¶ 37.)

Roe became irritated, questioned Wright-Phillips about her anxiety, and then told her that "medical clearance" was necessary to give her oxygen. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) Wright-Phillips had never heard of this requirement, and had receiving oxygen on previous flights without incident. (Id. ¶ 39.) Roe left Wright-Phillips's seat location, and when she did not return for six minutes, Wright-Phillips rang for her again. (Id. ¶¶ 41-43.)

When Roe returned, Wright-Phillips asked if medical clearance had been obtained and said that her anxiety was building, so that she needed oxygen right away. (Id. ¶ 46.) Roe responded, "I told you I needed to get medical clearance," in a raised voice. (Id. ¶ 47.) Wright-Phillips asked Roe if she had tried getting medical clearance, but Roe would not answer. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50.)

Roe left again but returned a few minutes later with other attendants. (Id. ¶¶ 51-52.) Wright-Phillips told the attendants that she had asked for oxygen. (Id. ¶ 55.) Roe loudly stated, "I can't just give you oxygen, I need medical clearance, I told you this." (Id. ¶ 57.) Wright-Phillips responded, "butyou are not getting medical clearance, it has been over 15 minutes. Please I just need some air." (Id. ¶ 58.) Roe and the other attendants left. (Id. ¶ 59.)

Given the time that had elapsed, Wright-Phillips thought she was having a panic attack. (Id. ¶ 60.) Then Roe asked, over the announcement system, whether there was a doctor on board. (Id. ¶ 61.) This confirmed to Wright-Phillips that Roe had not yet previously attempted to get medical clearance, so Wright-Phillips took additional medication. (Id. ¶¶ 62-63.)

Crew members then approached Wright-Phillips with a passenger who was a doctor; Roe was holding an oxygen tank. (Id. ¶ 64.) Wright-Phillips told the doctor about her anxiety and that she had just taken more medication. (Id. ¶ 65.) The doctor "responded appropriately" and asked her questions. (Id. ¶¶ 66-67.) The doctor said "excuse me" to stop Roe from speaking over him. He told Wright-Phillips that she should be fine, but not to drive home. (Id. ¶ 68.)

Wright-Phillips then asked Roe to leave her alone for the rest of the flight because Roe had upset her. Roe responded in a raised voice, "Don't you dare speak to me like that, and if you don't stop I will de-board the plane." (Id. ¶ 71.) Roe then approached a white passenger, knelt down, put her hand on the passenger's forearm, and asked, "Are you okay after that?" (Id. ¶ 74.) Later, during beverage service, Roe only served a white passenger in Wright-Phillips' row; Wright-Phillips was served by a Black attendant. (Id. ¶¶ 82-84.)

When the flight landed at Newark Airport, passengers were asked to remain seated. (Id. ¶ 86.) The New Jersey Port Authority Police ("PA Police") came aboard and escorted Wright-Phillips off the plane. (Id. ¶ 87.) An officer told her that the flight crew had reported her as a "disturbance." (Id. ¶ 91.)

Near the gate, in public view, the PA Police detained and questioned Wright-Phillips. (Id. ¶ 100.) At one point, a white passenger came up and told the officers that there was no reason for Wright-Phillips to be detained. (Id. ¶ 101.) She was released without charge. (Id. ¶ 102.) Nonetheless, this ordeal has led to exacerbated anxiety, a diagnosis of panic disorder, panic attacks, and difficulties in her day-to-day ability to function. (Id. ¶¶ 207-12.)

B. Procedural History

Wright-Phillips sued United, Roe, and Doe (the pilot), alleging the following claims: (1) discrimination in air transportation, in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 40127; (2) discrimination in places of public accommodation, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000a; (3) deprivation of civil rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (4) denial of equal treatment under the law, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981; (5) conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985; (6) discrimination in places of public accommodation, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-12(f)(1); (7) false imprisonment; (8) negligent infliction of emotional distress ("NIED"); (9) intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"); (10) negligent training; (11) defamation; and (12) respondeat superior. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 104-272.) United moves to dismiss all claims for failure to state a claim. (Mot.)


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a pleading contain detailed factual allegations but "more than labels and conclusions." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The allegations must raise a claimant's right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Id. at 570. That standard is met when "factual content [] allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim. The defendant bears the burden to show that no claim has been stated. Davis v. Wells Fargo, 824 F.3d 333, 349 (3d Cir. 2016). I accept facts in the complaint as true and draw reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013) (en banc).


I discuss each claim individually and hold as follows:

• Count 1 will be dismissed because I hold that there is no implied private right of action to enforce 49 U.S.C. § 40127(a).
• Count 2 will be dismissed because 42 U.S.C. § 2000a(a) can only be enforced by an action for injunctive relief, while Wright-Phillips seeks damages and otherwise lacks standing to seek injunctive relief.
• Count 3 will be dismissed because United is not a state actor.
• Count 5 will be dismissed because there are insufficient allegations of conspiracy.
• Count 7 will be dismissed because Wright-Phillips fails to adequately allege that Roe and Doe instigated her arrest.
• Count 12 will be dismissed because respondeat superior is not in itself a claim for relief.

The remaining claims (Counts 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11) survive.

C. Count 1: 49 U.S.C. § 40127(a)

Wright-Phillips brings a claim under 49 U.S.C. § 40127(a), which provides that "[a]n air carrier . . . may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry." Section 40127(a) thus sets forth a legal obligation but is "silent about whether an individual may bring suit to enforce" that obligation. Wisniewski v. Rodale, Inc., 510 F.3d 294, 297 (3d Cir. 2007). In this scenario, I must decide whether Congress impliedly expressed an intent that victims could sue violators of this statute for damages. Id. Making that showing is difficult because the Supreme Court stresses that courts should rarely imply private rights of action. Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, 138 S. Ct. 1386, 1402 (2018). Still, the task is not impossible, and I apply a two-part test, derived from Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), asking whether Congress intended to create (1) a "personal right" and (2) a "private remedy." Wisniewski, 510 F.3d at 301.

1. Personal Right

"Personal rights inhere in the individual; they are individually focused; they create individual entitlements." Three Rivers Ctr. for Indep. Living v. Hous. Auth. of the City of Pittsburgh, 382 F.3d 412, 419 (3d Cir. 2004) (quotation marks and citation omitted). To determine whether the statute creates a personal right, I review its text and context. McGovern v. City of Philadelphia, 554 F.3d 114, 119 (3d Cir. 2009).

a. Text

I first review the text for "rights-creating language." Id. at 301-02 (citation omitted). To be "rights-creating," language must be worded as an "entitlement[] for the person protected" rather than a "prohibition[] on the person regulated." Wisniewski, 510 F.3d at 302 (citation omitted). For example, the phrase "[n]o person shall be subjected to discrimination" is rights-creating because it focuses on the individual—the "person"—who is protected. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S....

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