A Black family is alleging discrimination in a lawsuit filed Thursday against Hilton and a Hampton Inn franchisee in Wilson, North Carolina, after a white female hotel clerk called police over a dispute regarding a billing mistake.
Dolores Corbett, who stayed at the hotel on the night of Nov. 23, 2018 with her husband and two teenagers, says that in addition to humiliating and degrading her, the clerk's decision to call police "put our family in imminent danger."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, arises from a dispute over a billing error. The next morning after spending the night, the clerk loudly and repeatedly told Corbett that her credit card had been declined. Corbett tried to explain that the $145-a-night room had been prepaid using points from her Hilton Honors account, the suit states. Hampton Inn is a Hilton brand.
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The suit alleges that when Corbett, a businesswoman from Eastampton, New Jersey, asked to speak to a supervisor about the problem, the clerk shouted "get off my property" and summoned police.
Fearing that the clerk would misrepresent what had occurred to the police dispatcher and the responding officers might overreact, Corbett said she felt compelled to check out immediately. She and her daughter packed up their belongings as quickly as possible as her husband and son waited outside in their van. When police arrived, Corbett told them they had done nothing wrong and the clerk acknowledged that they had paid for their stay, the suit says.
Yet officers escorted them from the hotel and circled their vehicle in a restaurant parking lot as the family waited for others in their party, the suit says.
Backing up their complaint, Corbett's attorneys revealed an email from the hotel's general manager, Phil Ronaghan, a day after the incident in which he offered his "sincerest apologies" and called the clerk's actions "unprofessional and unwarranted."
In the email, Ronaghan acknowledged the dispute was the result of a "simple billing error on our part" – and one "that should have been resolved quickly and without hassle."
He said the unnamed clerk told them she called police because she felt threatened. However, he said he did not feel that the situation rose to "anywhere near that level of dispute" and noted that she had been reassigned pending an internal review of the incident.
Ronaghan could not be reached for comment but the hotel's franchised owner, Patco Lodging, sent a statement to USA TODAY saying it believes the suit is without merit and that it has a zero-tolerance policy toward racism and discrimination. It said the incident was handled properly in accordance with Hilton’s sensitivity programming.
Delores' husband, engineer Alvin Corbett, told USA TODAY he is still shocked at what occurred that morning.
He said the experience left the family feeling "blindsided," adding, "You're thinking these things aren't going to happen to you and they did happen to us."
Reached for comment, Hilton spokesman Nigel Glennie said that while the company doesn't normally comment on lawsuits, "Hilton’s records show that our guest assistance team worked to resolve this complaint in 2018. We believe that our Hilton team engaged with sensitivity to understand, listen and address concerns about the guest’s experience."
One of the family's attorneys, Jason Kafoury said in an interview that he believes there may be a pattern of similar discrimination happening in Hilton-branded hotels. "We were capturing the moment to highlight this problem at Hilton and their franchises. "It’s wrong. It’s actionable. If we don’t call out racist behavior and file lawsuits, nothing changes."
In an interview, Delores Corbett said the lawsuit wasn't prompted by calls for justice for Black Americans after the George Floyd killing at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. Rather, she said the incident has been a source of continuing anguish, even more than a year and a half after the trip to Wilson. The family was there for what was supposed to be a celebration honoring Alvin's mother, Fannie, a civil rights activist and community organizer, who earned praise from the state's governor and legislature for her contributions to the Wilson area, which is located about an hour east of Raleigh.
"The pain is still there," she said.
It's not the first instance of alleged discrimination at a Hampton Inn. An employee at a property in Williamston, North Carolina, was fired after calling police on a Black family using the swimming pool there last weekend.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black family alleges discrimination by Hilton after clerk calls police