Sauntore Thomas probably felt pretty good about the fact that he, with the representation of his lawyer, employment law attorney Deborah Gordon, settled his employment discrimination suit against Enterprise Leasing Company. No, he didn’t hit the lottery, but he had three checks in hand when he walked into TCF Bank.
Thomas presented three checks written from Enterprise that day: One for $59,000. One for $27,000. And one for $13,000.
He wanted to deposit the first two and cash the third.*
“They couldn’t verify that those checks were due to a settlement,” said [TCF Bank spokesperson Tom] Wennerberg, adding the bank contacted Enterprise to verify that the checks were part of a lawsuit, but were unable to do so.
Wennerberg said the assistant manager who waited on Thomas was African American, and felt that something didn’t “look right,” so she called police.
It would be one thing if the bank informed Thomas that they couldn’t cash the check until it cleared, but since when does a bank have to “verify” anything before accepting a check for deposit? What business is it of the bank’s where or how Thomas got the check? And while they couldn’t reach Enterprise, they could reach Gordon, who confirmed that these were legit checks from a settlement. But then, how could they be sure it was Gordon they reached? How could they be sure Gordon was telling the truth?
The answer, of course, is who cares? It’s a bank. When someone presents a check for deposit, you take it, do your voodoo, and wish them a nice day. If it’s not a legitimate check, it will be refused by the issuing bank, the money will not be credited and, in the event there is any potential that a crime has been committed, the police get called. But then, and only then.
But, you say, the bank employee who “felt that something didn’t ‘look right,’ so she called police,” was also African American, so how could it be because Thomas was black? People are still people, regardless of their skin color, and black people, particularly those in officious positions like bank employees (not to mention cops) often assume the worst prejudices, even against their own.
Yet, how does a check not “look right”? TCF came up with a story.
TCF Bank spokesman Tom Wennerberg said Thursday that TCF abhors racism and it was not a factor in how the bank handled Thomas’ requests. He said the checks Thomas presented displayed a watermark that read VOID when they were scanned in a web viewer.
That’s a very specific allegation. The only way a watermark reads “VOID” is if the check was created to do so, which can happen when a check is used as an exemplar, for example. But regular checks have regular watermarks, even if they’re stolen, scammed or used by dishonest people to steal money. None of this causes a watermark to magically transform from normal to “VOID.” But then came the coup de grâce.
Within an hour, he deposited the checks into a new account at a Chase bank in Detroit. They cleared within 12 hours. Thomas, who had no car and walked to work, used the money to buy a 2004 Dodge Durango.
Watermarks don’t magically change from “VOID” to “deposit me, I’m good.” As it happens, the problem wasn’t merely that TCF Bank refused to deposit the checks into Thomas’ account, as if that wasn’t bad enough.
[Assistant Branch Manager Erika] Mack immediately appeared suspicious, explained the checks would need to be “verified” but that the bank’s computerized “verification system” was not working that day. Because of this malfunction, Mack said she would have to call in the checks to complete the transaction. She then walked away to a back area to “call in the checks,” but before leaving, she asked Thomas: “How did you get this money?”
Thomas answered the money was from a lawsuit settlement.
Is a bank depositor under some sort of duty to explain the source of funds? But Ericka Mack decided that Thomas had to explain it to her, not that it mattered as she was already certain this was fraud.
After a few minutes, Mack returned and stated that the person who verifies checks “was not around.” Thomas said he’d wait until that person showed up.
Turned out, the assistant bank manager was not going to-and-from a back area to complete Thomas’ transaction, but rather had called the Livonia Police and reported that Thomas was trying to deposit fraudulent checks.
Within 10 minutes, two Livonia Police officers arrived inside the lobby; two others remained outside the doors.
Mack was going to be a hero, calling the cops on this guy who she decided was engaged in fraud because he had three big checks and, let’s face it, he’s black, so what are the chances?
To their credit, the Livonia police didn’t arrest, beat or kill Thomas or his dog (there’s no mention of his having a dog, but there’s no mention that he doesn’t either). Then again, Thomas, skin color aside, seems to be a pretty regular person entitled to be treated like anyone else.
“I didn’t deserve treatment like that when I knew that the check was not fraudulent,” Thomas told the Free Press. “I’m a United States veteran. I have an honorable discharge from the Air Force. They discriminated against me because I’m black. None of this would have happened if I were white.”
It might have happened had he been white, smelled like urine and lived in a cardboard box, so it may be possible that it would have happened if he were white, plus other indicia of a problem. But even if it can’t be excluded that it would have happened under other circumstances, that doesn’t change the fact that there was no rational justification for taking issue, no less refusing, with the deposit of checks. That’s what banks do, except when it’s Ericka Mack of Livonia TCF bank and the checks are big and the depositor, the bank’s customer, is black.
*The norm, at least in my experience, is that the settlement check(s) would be payable to the attorney and client, sent to the attorney and cleared through the attorney’s escrow account. The attorney would then write a check to the client for his share, less the legal fees and expenses. This might not be the norm elsewhere, and regardless, so what?