May 17, 2016
Law360, Los Angeles (May 17, 2016, 10:36 PM ET) ¬¬ Airbnb was hit Tuesday with a proposed class action in D.C. federal court by an African¬American man who claims he was denied an accommodation in Philadelphia due to his race after a study found widespread discrimination against black Airbnb guests.

In a suit alleging violations of federal laws including the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, Gregory Selden says an Airbnb Inc. host agent initially rejected his application but then accepted it after he applied under imitation profiles featuring white individuals.

Selden further accuses the agent of shaming him when he complained.

A recently released working paper from Harvard Business School found that guests with distinctively African¬American names were about 16 percent less likely to be accepted on Airbnb than identical guests with distinctively white names.

Meanwhile, the alleged discrimination against Selden drew attention earlier this year when it spawned a viral hashtag titled “#airbnbwhileblack” that was retweeted thousands of times by individuals complaining of similar bias from Airbnb host agents and representatives, court papers said.

“This action is necessary and increasingly important to protect the civil rights of plaintiff’s and all others similarly situated that participate in the ‘sharing economy’ in which businesses connect people offering goods and services with other people who want to pay for them,” Selden’s suit said.

Selden, a 25¬year¬old resident of Virginia, says around March 2015, while working at his job in Washington, D.C., he signed up for Airbnb to secure housing in Philadelphia for a weekend getaway with friends. Selden’s profile included his face, along with his name, education, sex, age and location of residence.

Selden allegedly inquired about the availability of a Philadelphia accommodation from a host listed with the screen name “Paul,” who said it wasn’t available. Shortly thereafter, Selden came across the same listing by the agent or another Airbnb worker saying the accommodation was still available, his suit claims. Believing he was discriminated against because of his race, Selden set up two fake Airbnb profiles: one for a white individual named “Jessie” with similar demographics as him and one for an older white male named “Todd.” With both profiles, the agent could only see the name, profile picture, location and length of time they had been a member of the Airbnb community.

The same host agent who rejected Selden immediately accepted the imitation profiles’ requests for the same accommodations he had previously sought, according to the complaint. Selden then contacted Airbnb to complain of discrimination, but the company didn’t respond. He later confronted the host agent, who allegedly said Selden or “people like [him] were simply victimizing [himself],” the suit says.

The proposed class action claims Selden continued to contact Airbnb through March 2015 but that “his cries … would fall on deaf ear.”

The suit seeks unspecified damages, injunctive relief and other relief. “The sharing economy has grown exponentially, and Mr. Selden’s experiences of not being accommodated by Airbnb because of his race put in motion this country’s most iconic civil rights laws,” Ikechukwu “Ike” Emejuru of Emejuru & Nyombi LLC, who is representing Selden, said in a statement to Law360 on Tuesday.

Representatives for Airbnb didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment late

Selden is represented by Ike Emejuru and Andrew Nyombi of Emejuru & Nyombi LLC. Counsel information for Airbnb wasn’t immediately available.

The case is Gregory Selden et al. v. Airbnb Inc., case number 1:16¬cv¬00933, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.