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Michigan bank calls police on black man depositing checks from discrimination settlement

Sauntore Thomas traveled to his bank with recompense from a successful but deeply disheartening court battle. After seven months, he hoped the legal sagas were finally finished.

Instead, a new one was about to begin.

Thomas, a 44-year-old black man from Detroit, had just settled a discrimination lawsuit with his former employer when he walked into a TCF Bank in Livonia, Michigan, on Tuesday, settlement checks in hand. He tried to deposit them into his bank account, but an assistant manager refused and, suspecting fraud, eventually called the police.

The confrontation did not result in an arrest or criminal charges, but it did precipitate another racial discrimination suit - alleging a case of "banking while black" - and Thomas' lawyer said it also underscores the pattern of racism that people of color face while carrying out quotidian tasks like walking, gardening or cooking.

"This fits right into that picture, to a T," Deborah Gordon, an attorney for Thomas, said in an interview. "If I had walked into that bank, they'd have been happy to see me. But an assumption was made about him right away. That's part and parcel of being an African-American male in this country," said Gordon, who is white.

TCF Bank issued an apology on Thursday, hours after the Detroit Free Press first reported Thomas' story, saying that the bank employees should not have called the police.

"We strongly condemn racism and discrimination of any kind," bank spokesman Tom Wennerberg said in a statement. "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 the company may consider policy changes, but maintained that Thomas' request did raise some red flags.

"Given the circumstance of the request, it definitely warranted further investigation into the validity of these checks," he said.

Wennerberg declined to discuss the details of the transaction, but said in an earlier interview with the Associated Press that Thomas had tried to deposit three checks totaling $99,000 into an account that was nearly empty and had no recent activity.

Rather than turning Thomas away and calling the police, Wennerberg said, the bank's assistant branch manager should have "deposited the checks and informed the customer that there would be an extended hold until we could validate the source of the funds and the validity of them."

As soon as Thomas got to the counter, the assistant branch manager "immediately appeared suspicious" of him, says a lawsuit he filed in a Michigan circuit court this week. Thomas asked to open a savings account, deposit money and get cash back, the lawsuit says. But the assistant manager told him the checks would need to be "verified." Then she asked him: "How did you get this money?"

She said she needed to "call in the checks," the lawsuit says, but instead she went into a backroom and called the Livonia Police, which dispatched four officers to the bank. Later, it alleges, the bank filed a police report against Thomas, accusing him of check fraud - even after he called Gordon and she offered proof the money was from a legal settlement.

Thomas' "race was a factor" in TCF Bank's "decision to treat him less favorably than other individuals," the lawsuit says.

"They did not want to assist me because I was African-American," Thomas, who is also an Air Force veteran, told AP. "They didn't want to assist me because they assumed that I had a fraudulent check, which was far from the truth. This was no mistake. This was not just, 'Well, we made an error. I'm sorry.' I didn't get an 'I'm sorry.' "

And the timing made the situation worse, Gordon said. On Jan. 13, Thomas settled his federal lawsuit against the rental car company, Enterprise Leasing, where he used to work. On Tuesday, he received his settlement checks and went to the bank.

"For him, it was like, 'Wow I really can't get away from this,' " Gordon said. "You extricate yourself from one unfortunate situation and the same thing happens the day the other one ends, and it picks right back up again."

That day, Thomas withdrew the rest of his money from TCF Bank and closed his account. An hour later, he walked into a Chase Bank, opened an account and deposited the checks without issue, Gordon said. The next morning, the money was available.

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