On December 6, 2010, Relman Colfax filed a race discrimination case against Choice Hotels International, the owner of the Comfort Suites hotel brand, and one of its franchisees. The complaint, filed in the in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, alleges that two female African American customers were denied access to a Comfort Sites facility in Columbus, Ohio, based on race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”) and analogous state law.

According to the complaint, the two women paid for their hotel room in advance and were provided keys, but were later asked to leave after the brother of one of the plaintiffs, also African-American, met his sister at the hotel with three male friends. The manager stated that the hotel had a “no party” policy and a limit of five people in a room at a time. The manager threatened to call the police if the plaintiffs did not leave, and placed a can of Mace prominently on the front desk. The plaintiffs refused to leave. The police arrived and investigated, only to discover a large group of white teenagers having a party in the room next door to the plaintiffs' room, and obtaining an admission from the manager that the hotel did not, in fact, have a five-person limit or a "no party" policy. The police left without taking action. Nevertheless, plaintiffs were not allowed access to their room.

On August 1, 2012, the Court denied the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Choice Hotels Inc. (“Choice Hotels”), the franchisor of the Comfort Suites brand name. The Court found that a franchisor may be held liable under a theory of apparent agency in public accommodations cases brought under Section 1981.

Choice Hotels had argued in its motion that it could not be held liable as the franchisor under federal and state public accommodations laws because it allegedly did not operate the hotel or provide services to the public. Recognizing that the theory of apparent agency is available in a Section 1981 public accommodations case, the Court’s opinion found that a franchisor may be held liable for a public accommodations violation regardless of whether it operates the franchise or provides services to the public. The Court’s opinion is an important addition to the handful of public accommodations cases resolving the issue of franchisor liability in a plaintiff’s favor.

Case Citation

Ross v. Choice Hotels International, Inc., No. 2:10-cv-1098 (S.D. Ohio)

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