Reality Check

Threat of lawsuit changes discriminatory payment practices

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 been 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

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