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Discriminated against once, Detroiter sues when bank fails to cash settlement check

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Sauntore Thomas says he was racially profiled when a Livonia bank refused this week to accept checks he received to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit. The bank says it was following precautions to avoid fraud involving large deposits and requests for cash.

The incident led Thomas, 44, of Detroit to file suit in Wayne County Circuit Court, alleging staff at the branch of Detroit-based TCF Bank wouldn't cash his checks during a Tuesday visit and summoned police because he's African-American. 

Sauntore Thomas poses in his attorneys office Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Thomas, a black Air Force veteran who tried to deposit settlement checks from a discrimination lawsuit was rejected by his suburban Detroit bank, which suspected fraud and called police.

In his complaint, filed Wednesday, Thomas claims the bank's assistant manager "immediately appeared suspicious" of him, informed him the checks would need to be verified and asked him, "How did you get this money?"

He alleges she called Livonia police without him knowing and reported Thomas was trying to deposit fraudulent checks.

TCF Bank spokesman Tom Wennerberg said Thursday that branch staff adhered to company policy and acted appropriately.

"Mr. Thomas' transaction was handled like any other transaction involving large requests for cash," he said. "We regret there was any inconvenience to Mr. Thomas as a result." 

In a separate statement, the bank said, "We apologize for the experience Mr. Thomas had at our banking center. Local police should not have been involved. We strongly condemn racism and discrimination of any kind. 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.”

Deborah Gordon, an attorney for Thomas, said it's not clear why the assistant manager thought the checks were fraudulent or why she called police. "And if they thought they were fraudulent, why didn't they just call the bank that issued the checks to verify them?" she asked.

According to the lawsuit, Thomas sued his former employer in U.S. District Court for race discrimination on May 28, 2019.

The suit was settled Jan. 13 and he received settlement checks Tuesday. Gordon said neither she nor her client is allowed to disclose the amount because of the agreement.

Federal court records show he sued Enterprise Leasing Company of Detroit LLC, an automobile rental company.

After receiving the checks, Thomas took them to the TCF Bank branch on Middle Belt in Livonia about 3 p.m. Tuesday to deposit them, the circuit court suit said. Thomas is an Air Force veteran and had a TCF checking account since 2018, the suit said.

Gordon said although her client had an account, he didn't have much money in it. Wennerberg said Thomas wanted to deposit three checks in his account, which "had a very low balance."

Once at the bank, Thomas asked to open a savings account, deposit the checks and withdraw some cash. In addition, he asked for a new debit card because his current card was not working, according to the suit.

Wennerberg said the bank was unable to immediately cash a check because it places holds on all checks that are issued through another bank and not a TCF account. He also said the branch's staff tried to contact Thomas' former employer to verify the checks' authenticity but couldn't reach anyone who would do it on the record.

According to the suit, four Livonia police officers arrived at the bank. Two approached Thomas at the teller's counter and one of the officers spoke to both Thomas and bank personnel, it said.

He said in the suit that he explained to police that the checks were from a court settlement and he was there to deposit them. Thomas claims he gave one of the officers the business card of his attorney.

Thomas called his lawyer, Gordon, who also spoke with the officers, the lawsuit said. She also spoke with the bank's assistant manager, who continued to refuse to deposit the checks, it said.

Gordon said: "The assistant manager asked me, 'How do I know you're really his attorney?'"

The incident ended when Thomas closed his TCF checking account, left the bank and took his checks to a Chase Bank branch in Detroit to deposit them, Gordon said. "The checks cleared there in 12 hours," she said. 

Wennerberg said the bank branch's assistant manager acted appropriately because of a number of irregularities she saw with Thomas' request to deposit large checks, a request for cash and a new debit card. "The fact that all of these things all came together, it was absolutely the right thing for her to question the legitimacy of the checks."

He also said banks like TCF Bank are always on guard against fraud.

"Banks across the country have to deal with fraud all of the time," Wennerberg said. "And all of us as consumers pay for it when it happens. We try to be vigilant."

TCF has about 500 branches in Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, with additional locations in Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The company has $46 billion in total assets.

Thomas' suit seeks damages to be determined by a jury as well as legal costs. A status conference has been scheduled for April 22 before Judge Brian Sullivan.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez