Should a Jew rent from Avis? Part Two

Avis has apologized for not renting a car this past weekend to Dov Bergwerk, an Israeli business executive and frequent Avis customer. I described Avis’ refusal here.

Avis issued the following statement:

We have investigated the denial of a rental that recently occurred in Manhattan. We have found that we have been inconsistent in applying our policies with respect to documentation requirements with this customer, who has rented from us in the past without providing a second form of identification. We are committed to providing an outstanding car rental experience to our customers and believe that we should have done better here. We have spoken with the customer and apologized for the misunderstanding that occurred as a result of this inconsistency in applying our documentation policy, and the customer has accepted our apology.

We reiterate our policy that we do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin or sexual orientation. We intend to take steps, including additional training, to improve the consistency in our application of documentation policies.

If, in fact, Avis’ apology is good enough for Mr. Bergwerk, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

However, the Bergwerk affair isn’t the first time Avis has been accused of unfairly treating a Jew. Around the turn of the century, Avis was the defendant in a class action suit alleging that it denied Jews the right to make and enforce contracts because of their race, ancestry, and ethnic characteristics.

The eventual lead plaintiff was a bookstore called Zeirei Agudath Israel (ZAI). It used rental cars frequently for trips to New York and other cities to pick up specially ordered books.

According to the complaint against Avis, when it applied to the company for an account using its full name, the application was denied. A year later, when it applied from a different address as Z.A.I. bookstore, rather than Zeirei Agudath Israel bookstore, the account was approved.  

A second named plaintiff, Levi Sufrin, alleged that Avis terminated his corporate account and that its stated reason for the cancellation, that he had presented a false identification when trying to rent a vehicle, was a pretext for religious discrimination against Jews.

These, of course, are only allegations. I have no opinion as to whether they are true.

In 1999, a federal district court certified the case as a class action. However, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision. It ruled, in essence, that common questions of law or fact did not predominate over individualized questions, as is required to maintain the kind of class action brought by the plaintiffs.

This argument is frequently used to oppose class certification; I used it successfully on several occasions. I can’t opine as to whether this class particular should have been certified, although one can see from a description of the two named plaintiffs’ claims alone that individualized questions — e.g., did Sufrin present false identification — might well play an important role in the adjudication of the claims of class members.

For present purposes, though, the key point is that the Eleventh Circuit did not reach the merits of the religious discrimination claim against Avis. The ruling on class certification was purely procedural.

The denial of class certification would not necessarily have ended the matter. The plaintiffs remained free to pursue their individual cases. Whether they did and, if so, what the outcome was I do not know.

I’ll try to find out and will report what I learn. Perhaps my findings will shed light on the question of whether a Jew should rent from Avis.