By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit accusing Mesa Air Group of racially profiling two Muslim men from Texas when the pilot canceled their flight because she found them suspicious.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday said Issam Abdallah and Abderraouf Alkhawaldeh, both U.S. citizens, could try to prove that Mesa violated federal civil rights law by subjecting them to disparate treatment.
Both men said they were returning to Dallas from Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 14, 2019, when their pilot, from the East African country of Eritrea, canceled the flight based on their “Arabic, Mediterranean” ethnicity, and told security personnel she refused to fly the plane “with a brother named Issam on it.”
Mesa rebooked both men on a later flight.
In a 3-0 decision, the New Orleans-based appeals court found nothing “so obviously suspicious” about the plaintiffs to eliminate the possibility that Mesa treated them differently based on race.
It also rejected a trial judge’s finding that there was no disparate treatment because all passengers had their flight canceled.
“To hold otherwise would lead to intolerable results,” Circuit Judge Jerry Smith wrote. “Would an employer avoid … liability if it merely started a hiring freeze every time a black man added his name to the applicant pool? Could a school fire a female employee so long as it fired a male employee as well? The Supreme Court tells us that the answer is no.”
Smith said Phoenix-based Mesa was not excused because its ticket rules gave it broad discretion to cancel flights.
The case was returned to U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas.
Mesa and its lawyers did not immediately respond on Thursday to requests for comment.
The plaintiffs had bought their tickets from American Airlines, where they were frequent fliers.
They were represented by lawyers from the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic relations.
“Issam and Abderraouf were profiled, surveilled, and deemed to be a threat simply because of their race,” Hannah Mullen, one of the lawyers, said in a statement. “(We) look forward to taking this case to a jury.”
The case is Abdallah et al v Mesa Air Group Inc, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-10686.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York)