What would’ve been an exciting day for septuagenarian public-schools retiree Lizzie Pugh turned into one of stress and humiliation when bank employees accused her, she said, of trying to deposit a fraudulent slot machine jackpot check.
Pugh filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on Aug. 29, alleging that employees of Fifth Third Bank in Livonia, Michigan, refused to cash and deposit a five-figure check she’d won at Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mt. Pleasant while on an outing with her church group.
Pugh, who is Black, alleges three White employees “insisted” the check was fraudulent and refused to give it back to her.
"I couldn’t really believe they did that to me," Pugh told the Detroit Free Press. "I was devastated. I kept asking, 'How do you know the check is not real?' ... And they just insisted that it was fraudulent ... I was just terrified."
Pugh said she told the bank she wasn’t leaving without the check, which featured the Soaring Eagle insignia. Eventually, bank employees gave the check back to her, and she went to a nearby JPMorgan Chase location, where the check was deposited and cleared without issue.
"To think that maybe they would have police coming and running at me — it was humiliating and stressful," Pugh said. "For someone to just accuse you of stealing? I’m 71 years old. Why would I steal a check and try to cash it? I just didn’t think anybody would do that."
Although rattled by the interaction, she didn’t consider pursuing legal action until her niece insisted.
"I told her, 'This clearly was a violation of your civil rights. There are laws in place now, where you can fight. Let's fight this,' " Yolanda McGee said to the Detroit Free Press. "Fifth Third Bank needs to know that they humiliated you. What they did was wrong. And they need to answer for this."
Fifth Third spokesperson Ed Loyd said the bank is "committed to fair and responsible banking and prohibit[s] discrimination of any kind."
"From our review of the claims, we believe our employees’ actions were well intentioned and have been misinterpreted. That said, we regret Ms. Pugh has come away feeling mistreated after her interactions at our branch,” Loyd said. “We never want someone to feel that way.”
The actions of Fifth Third’s employees were “consistent with our process and the dual goals of serving our customers while also preventing potential frauds that can victimize both the bank and our customers,” Loyd added.
A similar case
McGee connected Pugh to Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield, Michigan-based civil rights attorney who’d handled a similar case. In 2020, Sauntore Thomas sued his employer for racial discrimination, and his employer settled the lawsuit confidentially. However, when he went to a Livonia location of TCF Bank to cash his settlement check, bank employees refused to cash or deposit it. Instead, police were called, and he was investigated him for fraud.
As Thomas’ attorney, Gordon sued TCF, leading to an apology from the bank and another confidential settlement.
Gordon called Pugh’s situation “heartbreaking.”
"Given what she has lived through — and to have a happy moment, something she enjoyed, be ruined by being humiliated?" Gordon said.
“Banking while Black” is a phrase that turns up a number of search engine results leading to similar stories of Black Americans trying to cash or deposit checks only to be accused of fraudulent behavior. In December, Peter Wogbah was unable to withdraw funds from his U.S. Bank account in Bloomington, Minnesota, because of undue suspicions of fraud, and the tellers called the police on him.
Cheryl Leamon, a senior vice president with U.S. Bank, told TV station KSTP the bank “regret[s] the frustration this caused the customer,” although she didn’t address why tellers called the police. This followed a separate incident at U.S. Bank last year, in which a bank employee in the Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights called police on customer Joe Morrow to report a “possible fraudulent check.” The check was real, but body camera footage shows the employee didn’t call to verify that until the customer was handcuffed, KSTP reported.
U.S. Bank CEO Andy Cecere publicly apologized to the Minneapolis community following the incident.
“I am deeply sorry for where we have failed,” Cecere wrote in a letter. “What Mr. Morrow experienced is not the experience that any customer should have.”
Gordon did not respond to a request for further comment on Pugh’s lawsuit by press time.