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Judge Allows Race Discrimination Lawsuit Against the Hilton
Scranton & Conference Center to Move Forward

By Borys Krawczeniuk, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 29, 2010--A federal judge has allowed the heart of a racial discrimination lawsuit by dozens of black guests against the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center to move forward.

The Dec. 20 ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo granted the hotel's request for immediate dismissal of three civil rights claims, but left intact one claim because the 68 plaintiffs produced enough evidence to show they might have been victims of discrimination.

A trial is expected to start in February.

The hotel denies discriminating.

"If you could imagine the worst possible trip you could ever have and multiply that by a factor of 10, this is what my clients went through," said attorney Frederick M. Walton Jr., who represents the group.

The group took a weekend ski trip by bus from the Philadelphia area to Scranton in February 2006. Black group members say Hilton staff took four hours to check them in because they all had to sign property damage and theft waivers that white guests on the trip did not have to sign, according to the lawsuit, filed in February 2008.

"The reason we know there was discrimination was half the bus was white, half was black," Mr. Walton said.

Hotel staff allegedly followed black guests around during their stay, ignored them while serving dinner to white guests and told group leaders they did not want the group to "clash" with a black-tie fundraiser one night.

The suit also claims the hotel's food and beverage manager told black guests he would monitor their "food and drink consumption because 'they weren't going to mess up his liquor license.'"

On Saturday morning, the hotel ran out of breakfast food halfway through a morning buffet, and guests who ate "were not offered silverware and were forced to eat from paper plates and plastic utensils," according to the suit. During an evening dinner, the hotel ran out of food only 20 minutes into a two-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet promised by the company that organized the trip, Adventure Unlimited. Group members sued Adventure at first, too, but later dropped their suit.

After the dinner, as six group members got off an elevator on the fifth floor, they were approached by the hotel food and beverage manager who told them he heard there was "a brawl" or "riot" and he had called police.

Seeing and hearing none, the manager called 911 to report there was no "riot," then left the guests to deal with the dozen police officers who arrived anyway with a dog the officers warned was "trained to bite."

The hallway was quiet before that, and group members reacted calmly, the suit says, but police kept yelling at Gregory Sanford, Michelle Sanford's husband, and punched guest Kimm Jones, in the chest and threw him and his wife, Christine Jones-Combs, against a wall.

Police later handcuffed Mr. Jones, led him to a police car in full view of other guests, and released him but only after a citation for disorderly conduct, according to the suit.

The Joneses and the Sanfords later sued the city and its police department in federal court for racial discrimination. The suits were settled in November 2008 with terms that were not disclosed in court records.

City Solicitor Paul A. Kelly, who was not the solicitor then, said he is trying find records that outline the settlement.

In its response to the suit, the hotel said the lengthy check-in procedure happened because the group booked through an outside trip company, which white patrons did not do; it monitored guests because that's part of its job; it called police in response to complaints by other guests; and provided food and beverages according to the trip package.

Efforts to reach the hotel's lawyer, attorney Philip R. Voluck, were unsuccessful.

Brian Anderson, the general manager for the hotel's new owners, who took over only last week, said he knew nothing of what happened. All prior lawsuits filed against the hotel are the responsibility of the prior owners. He referred questions to Bob Andrews, chief operating officer of Prospera Hospitality, which ran the hotel.

Efforts to reach Mr. Andrews were unsuccessful.

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