U.S. Markets close in 4 hrs 55 mins

A Bank Wouldn't Take His Bias Settlement Money. So He's Suing.

Christine Hauser
Sauntore Thomas, 44, of Detroit, in a photo provided by the law firm of Deborah Gordon, which is representing Thomas in a discrimination suit. (Law firm of Deborah Gordon via The New York Times)

Last week, Sauntore Thomas, a black man from Detroit, had a victory over profiling when he settled a race discrimination case against his former employer.

But as he learned this week, it was too soon to celebrate.

When he tried Tuesday to deposit the money at his TCF Bank, a new lawsuit says, he met resistance that escalated with a call to the police and what amounted to a claim of racial discrimination against the bank. The lawsuit called it “banking while black.”

After the assistant branch manager called the police, Thomas, 44, was questioned by two Livonia Police Department officers in the lobby for about an hour, Thomas and his lawyer, Deborah Gordon, said in interviews Thursday. He was also accused of fraud, even after Gordon texted screenshots of documents showing that he had just won the funds from the settlement, Gordon said.

“I have had this with black clients before,” Gordon said. “There can be a lot of questions when they suddenly have money.”

Lt. Charles Lister, the investigative bureau commander at the police department, said that Thomas was not handcuffed or patted down, that the two officers were in the bank with him for 50 minutes and that two others briefly waited outside.

“He was never told he could not leave by our officers,” Lister said.

Thomas, whose story first appeared in The Detroit Free Press, had collected the checks from the Jan. 13 federal settlement with his former employer, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Circuit Court for the county of Wayne.

On Jan. 21, Thomas went to the TCF branch in Livonia, Michigan, where he has had a checking account since 2018, it says. He asked to open a savings account, obtain a new debit card, deposit the money and get cash back, the lawsuit says.

But he did not get far. The lawsuit says he was told by the assistant branch manager that the system was malfunctioning, that the checks had to be “verified” and “called in,” and that he needed to answer a question: “How did you get this money?” The lawsuit says that the assistant branch manager went into a back room and called the Livonia Police Department.

In an interview Thursday, Thomas said that two police officers arrived, while two were posted outside the bank. Thomas said one of the officers inside the bank told him, “‘Can you come over here and speak with us?’ And I said, ‘Who, me?’”

He said he was told to take his hands out of his pockets, which he did, and go to a back room, which he refused to do.

“He thought I was a threat,” Thomas said. “I was just trying to do some banking.”

TCF did not immediately reply to an email or phone calls seeking comment.

The Free Press quoted a bank spokesman, Tom Wennerberg, as saying that race was not a factor and that the checks showed a watermark that read “void” when scanned by the bank. Wennerberg said the three checks were for $59,000, $27,000 and $13,000. Gordon said she was unable to disclose the amount of the checks.

After Thomas was questioned by the officers and they spoke to Gordon, he left without depositing the checks, the suit continues. Thomas’ “race was a factor” in the bank’s decision to “treat him less favorably than other individuals,” it says.

The lawsuit, which alleges race discrimination and names TCF Financial Corp. as the defendant, is seeking a jury trial.

Wennerberg said in an interview Thursday that Thomas had little previous activity on his account and the assistant branch manager, who is black, believed the checks could be fraudulent because they “visually” did not match previous checks.

“We take extra precautions involving large deposits and requests for cash, and in this case, we were unable to validate the checks presented by Mr. Thomas and regret we could not meet his needs,” Wennerberg said.

“We really want to apologize for the experience,” he said. “Local police should not have been involved.”

Before he left the bank that day, Thomas closed his TCF account; he then went to another bank, where he opened a new account and deposited the checks, he said. They cleared the next morning and Thomas was able to buy a used car that he had his eye on for $6,000, he said.

But TCF bank had filed a police report against Thomas, alleging check fraud, according to the lawsuit. On Jan. 22, a Livonia detective asked Gordon in an email for a contact at Thomas’ former employer, Enterprise, the rental car company, so that the officer could ask about the settlement checks and “confirm that they are not fraudulent,” the email said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company