Airbnb Sued, Accused of Ignoring Hosts’ Race Discrimination

Updated on
  • Virginia man says he was denied service because he is black
  • Host allegedly accepted reservation from fake white profiles

Airbnb Inc. was accused in a civil-rights lawsuit of ignoring a black man who complained that his reservation request with the online room-rental company was rejected by a host because of his race.

Gregory Selden, 25, sued Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., claiming violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other statutes. He’s seeking class-action status to represent what he says are thousands of other people who’ve had similar experiences with San Francisco-based Airbnb. Title II of the act bars discrimination in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and sports arenas.

The suit adds to Airbnb’s growing list of legal challenges. The company has sparred with governments over the taxes its hosts pay, and it’s been sued over other alleged misdeeds of its hosts, including one incident involving a hidden camera in a rental.

Nick Papas, a spokesman for Airbnb, said that while he can’t comment on individual cases, the company does prohibit content that promotes bigotry, racism, hatred or harassment.

“We strongly believe that racial discrimination is unacceptable and it flies in the face of our mission to bring people together,” Papas said in an e-mailed statement. “We are taking aggressive action to fight discrimination and eliminate unconscious bias in our community.”

Company’s Challenge

While the claims haven’t been proven in court, the lawsuit shows the challenges companies like Airbnb face in policing the behavior of users who aren’t typical employees and who aren’t managed by anyone on the ground, said Todd Solomon, a lawyer with McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Chicago.

“It’s hard enough to instill corporate culture even with face-to-face contact, so there’s a special challenge here,” said Solomon, who isn’t involved in the case. “They have no idea if somebody who registers a rental home has any interest in sharing their core values or whether they even know about their core values.”

Selden, of Virginia, claims an Airbnb host in Philadelphia identified only as Paul turned down his request in March 2015. But Paul, whom Selden refers to as an Airbnb agent, representative or employee, continued to advertise the property as being available on the requested date, according to the suit.

‘Same Listing’

“Soon after and on the same day he was rejected by the Airbnb agent or employee, Mr. Selden stumbled across the same listing,” according to the complaint. “This is despite the fact that the Airbnb agent or employee told Mr. Selden that the accommodation was not available.”

Paul then accepted the same request made by using two phony profiles for white men named Jessie and Todd, Selden said.

When Selden complained to the company, “his cries to Airbnb would fall on deaf ears,” according to the suit.

Selden said he took his complaint to Twitter instead, where his hashtag #airbnbwhileblack went viral and had “thousands of retweets from individuals who experienced the exact same disparate treatment from Airbnb host agents, representatives, servants or employees,” according to the suit.

The case is Selden v. Airbnb Inc., 16-cv-00933, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

Related ticker:
9865065Z US (Airbnb Inc.)

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