By Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press via USA Today
Sauntore Thomas is reeling from a one-two punch.
First, the Detroiter sued his employer alleging racial discrimination in a lawsuit that settled confidentially. Then he went to the bank this week to cash his settlement checks, but the Livonia branch refused to cash or deposit his checks. Instead, they called the cops and initiated a fraud investigation — actions that dumbfounded Thomas and his lawyer, triggering another lawsuit.
On Wednesday, Thomas sued TCF Bank for alleged race discrimination, saying the Livonia branch mistreated and humiliated him by calling four police officers when all he was trying to do was deposit legitimate checks. According to police, the bank’s computer system read the checks as fraudulent.
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.
Thomas isn’t buying it, noting the checks cleared 12 hours later. He’s upset that two officers questioned him inside the bank, while two others stood guard outside, he said, adding he was an account holder for nearly two years at that TCF branch.
“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.”
Thursday afternoon, TCF issued an apology:
“We apologize for the experience Mr. Thomas had at our banker 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.”
Thomas could not disclose the amount of the settlement due to it being part of a confidential agreement stemming from a federal lawsuit against his former employer, Enterprise Leasing Company of Detroit. He said he ended up going to a Chase bank in Detroit that day, opened an account and successfully deposited the checks there. The money was made available within 12 hours.
Thomas said that while he was at the Livonia bank, he called his lawyer — prominent employment law attorney Deborah Gordon — for help in explaining that his checks were a legitimate, civil suit settlement. But the bank wouldn’t take her word for it, either.
“I got on the phone with the bank. I sent them my federal court complaint, to see that it matched. I did everything,” said Gordon, who believes her client was scrutinized because of the color of his skin.
“Obviously, assumptions were made the minute he walked in based on his race. It’s unbelievable that this guy got done with a race discrimination case and he’s not allowed to deposit the checks based on his case? It’s absolutely outrageous,” said Gordon, stressing all of this could have been avoided.
“They could have just called the bank that issued the checks, and they apparently didn’t do anything because it would have all been verified immediately.”
According to TCF’s Wennerberg, Thomas presented three checks written from Enterprise that day: One for $59,000. One for $27,000. And one for $13,000.
“They couldn’t verify that those checks were due to a settlement,” said 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.
“Obviously, the customer got upset at that point,” Wennerberg said, adding Thomas had made a “highly, highly unusual request.”
According to Wennerberg, Thomas wanted to deposit the two larger checks in his bank account, which, Wennerberg said, had only 52 cents in it. And he wanted to cash the $13,000 check, he said, adding the bank told him that those funds would be on hold for two business days, and that Thomas said “fine.” Thomas also wanted a new debit card because, he told the bank, his old one wasn’t working, he said, adding that request sounded unusual as well.
Wennerberg said he had not yet seen the race discrimination lawsuit that Gordon filed against TCF on Wednesday, but denied that the bank engaged in discriminatory behavior.
“We disagree with that,” Wennerberg said. “We were looking at the behavior, the asks that he was making.”
The bank also issued a statement Thursday: “TCF Bank is a diverse business serving a diverse community and we abhor racism in all forms. Mr. Thomas’ transaction was handled like any other transactions involving requests for large amounts of cash. We regret any inconvenience to Mr. Thomas.”
The Livonia Police officer assigned to the case did not return requests for comment, though she explained some of the bank’s concerns in an email she sent on Wednesday to Gordon, in which she asked for help in establishing the checks’ authenticity.
“Do you have a contact person that you were dealing with at Enterprise that would be able to confirm for me that these checks are in fact legitimate,” read the email from Lora Claypool, of the Livonia Police Department’s Detective Bureau.
“The problem that the bank is having is that these check(s) appear different than (the company’s) payroll checks so their computer system is telling them that they are fraud. If I can confirm that they are not fraudulent, by getting a hold of Enterprise Leasing Company then I can give that information to the bank, and we can resolve this situation.”
According to the email, the officers at the bank did receive copies of the lawsuit from Gordon, but “they wanted to make contact with Enterprise to confirm.”
Thomas was not arrested. No charges were filed.
Meanwhile, Thomas, 44, is demanding answers from the bank. He is suing for unspecified damages, and wants an apology from the bank for putting him through what he describes as a hellish experience. According to Thomas, this is what happened at the TCF bank that day.
About 3 p.m. Tuesday, Thomas entered the and filled out a sign-in sheet to meet with a banking specialist to open an additional savings account and deposit his checks. He eventually met with Assistant Branch Manager Erika Mack, gave her his checks and explained that he would like to open a savings account, deposit the checks and withdraw some cash.
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.
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.
One of the officers told Thomas that the bank had reported “a problem” with his checks, and wanted to know where he got them.
Thomas explained the lawsuit, gave the officer his lawyer’s business card, and then called his lawyer himself for help.
Two officers spoke with Gordon, who also explained to the officers and an assistant bank manager that Thomas had settled a federal lawsuit involving race discrimination, and that he was trying to deposit his settlement checks.
The bank still refused to deposit them, the lawsuit states, and then filed a police report against Thomas for check fraud.
Thomas closed his TCF account that day and left the premises. 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.
“I had a very long journey and I feel like I have to go through the same thing again,” Thomas said. “It’s frustrating, but I do know God is in control. I will be vindicated because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Gordon, meanwhile, scoffed at the bank’s claims that her client’s checks appeared to be fraudulent, adding she picked the checks up from the Butzel Long law firm that day, and had a courier deliver them to her client.
“The checks have never been considered fraudulent, they are proceeds against a settlement written on a check from a large, United States corporation that I received from a major law firm. No one is issuing fraudulent checks,” Gordon said. “This whole thing is insane.”
This article originally appeared in Detroit Free Press.