Reality check: threat of lawsuit changes discriminatory payment practices – Buying Power

Reality check: threat of lawsuit changes discriminatory payment practices – Buying Power – retailers sued for not accepting out-of-state checks from African American customers

Lee Anna Jackson

In June 2001, Jesse Williams, a music teacher in the District of Columbia public school system, ran into difficulty trying to purchase a $33 printer cartridge from a Staples office supply store in the Winchester area of Virginia with a check from his Maryland bank account. A cashier told Williams that the store did not accept out-of-state checks. It wasn’t enough that his home address was printed on his check and that he presented his Maryland driver’s license, as well as his student identification from Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, where he’s taking graduate classes.

He later purchased the cartridge with a personal check at a nearby Office Max without a problem. During a conversation, a couple of weeks after the incident, a colleague revealed that her out-of-state Maryland check was accepted at the same Staples on the same day She is white. Williams is black.

Lawyers from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the Holland & Knight law firm in Washington, D.C. (who both represent Mr. Williams) recently filed a complaint seeking monetary relief and an end to the store’s discriminatory practices, alleging that Staples unlawfully refused to accept Williams’ check on the basis of race–a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The allegation was confirmed by two testers–one black and the other white–employed by The Equal Rights Center (TERC), a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., who visited the Winchester Staples store.

The African American tester unsuccessfully tried to purchase approximately $26 worth of blank CDs. The white tester was told that the store did not normally accept out-of-state checks. The manager eventually approved his purchase.

TERC testers also uncovered a pattern of discrimination by KayBee Toy stores in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, after Avis Buchanan, a civil rights attorney had a questionable experience at the store in November 1999. “I was preparing to pay for my nephew’s birthday presents, when the store clerk informed me that the store did not accept checks. It seemed unusual because I remember paying by check at KayBee before.”

The store, located in the Forest Village Park Mall, in Forestville, Maryland, is in a predominantly black neighborhood. After complaining, Buchanan says that the clerk admitted processing returns for people who paid by check at other KayBee stores.

A press conference exposing the incident brought four more plaintiffs forward. The five have filed a class action lawsuit against the toy stores. TERC has found that the policy of stores refusing to accept personal checks has only in areas with a predominantly African American clientele or customer base. At the time, KayBee attributed this discrepancy to the number of bad checks these stores had received in the past. “I don’t think the store should have to be subjected to bad checks, but why didn’t they just use TeleCheck or take some similar protective measure?” Buchanan wonders. TeleCheck and other such companies offer a check-acceptance service to businesses that guarantees payment.

KayBee filed a motion to have the case dismissed arguing that it is not a customer’s right to pay by check, but the motion was denied. Since the lawsuit, KayBee now accepts checks in all of its stores in the Washington-Baltimore area.

What is a customer’s right? It is up to the store to decide on its payment policies, but patterns in policy that change based on the racial composition of a neighborhood make it discriminatory. Consumers do have methods of recourse when faced with these types of overt racially discriminatory practices: Report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection. Although they do not resolve individual consumer problems, a complaint can lead to an investigation and possible law enforcement action.

Seek assistance from a local advocacy group: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fair housing organizations, and human rights commissions. “A human rights commission, will investigate the situation and if there’s a violation, a staff attorney or contracted attorney may file a suit on your behalf,” explains Reed Colfax, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Report the incident to the company’s corporate headquarters. In some cases, they may not know what’s going on the local level.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group