WASHINGTON – A federal judge has refused to throw out a lawsuit that charges that KB Toy stores in predominantly African-American areas of Maryland refuse to accept personal checks, while stores in white areas do.
While U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow agreed last week to let the case proceed, she threw out one of the plaintiffs in the case, the Equal Rights Center, saying it was not injured and did not have standing. The center surveyed 30 KB Toy stores in Maryland and Northern Virginia and found seven that had a no-check policy.
Five African-American plaintiffs who said they were victimized by the no- check policy will be allowed to proceed with their case, and rejection of the center “doesn’t have any impact on the ability of the plaintiffs to go forward,” said an attorney for the group.
But attorney Jeffrey D. Robinson was not ready to claim victory in the case. It “puts us on a path to getting the matter resolved. I wouldn’t say (the ruling) strengthens the case,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, Clinton resident Ardelia Crawford was trying to buy nine Marvel Comic action figures in the Iverson Mall store in Temple Hills when her check was rejected in July 1999. When Crawford asked for an explanation of the policy, the manager, who is black, said, “You know how we are; we write bad checks,” according to the suit.
Other plaintiffs also said their checks were rejected at the Iverson Mall store, as well as at stores in Forest Village Park Mall in Forestville and Prince George’s Plaza in Hyattsville. The survey by the Equal Rights Center, a Washington-based non-profit civil rights group, found no-check policies at KB Toy stores in Laurel Center in Laurel, Mondawmin Mall and Reisterstown Road Plaza in Baltimore and City Place in Silver Spring.
KB stores in predominantly white areas of Maryland and Northern Virginia accepted checks, the survey found.
Attorneys for Consolidated Stores Corp. argued in court filings that KB Toys did not intend to discriminate on the basis of race. At most, their motion said, the check policy had a disproportionate impact on blacks.
They also argued that the plaintiffs were not significantly inconvenienced because they were able to make their purchases with cash or a credit card.
Consolidated Stores sold the toy chain to KB Toys management in December. Calls to both companies seeking comment were not returned this week. But previous published reports quoted a Consolidated representative as saying that the no-check policies were based not on race but on the rate of fraudulent checks, and that stores in predominantly white areas banned checks in other parts of the country.
But another attorney for the plaintiffs said the law cited in this case has been used successfully in lawsuits against Denny’s restaurant, Avis Rent a Car and the Adams Mark hotel cases.
“I think it’s a pretty important ruling and will open the door to more cases of this type,” where stores have different rules or terms or service for different areas, said John P. Relman, the attorney. He said the case could affect many businesses, such as stores that require identification to examine jewelry in certain neighborhoods.
Robinson said both parties have to tell Chasanow by Feb. 1 if they are willing to enter into mediation or settlement discussions. He would not say whether those discussions had been initiated.
He said the December sale of KB Toys is not likely to affect the case.
According to the KB Kids Web site, KB Toys is “the nation’s largest combined mall-based and online specialty toy retailer,” with more than 1,300 stores.