A civil rights group filed a lawsuit yesterday against KB Toys, saying the large toy store chain refused to accept personal checks at stores in African American neighborhoods across the Baltimore-Washington area.
After complaints from two consumers, the District-based Equal Rights Center recently visited 19 KB Toys stores in the region. It discovered that seven stores in African American communities in Prince George's County and Baltimore routinely rejected personal checks.
The remaining stores, which accepted personal checks, were in majority white communities such as Bethesda, Columbia, Owings Mills and Fairfax County, the center said.
Consolidated Stores Corp., the Columbus, Ohio, company that owns KB Toys, said the toy retailer refuses to accept checks in some stores because of high fraudulent check rates. The rates can be as high as 20 percent even though KB Toys has used check-acceptance services designed to screen for problem checks, said Brad Waite, Consolidated's senior vice president of human resources.
Of the 1,350 KB Toys stores nationwide, he said, only a small percentage do not accept checks. Those that have a no-check-acceptance policy won't accept checks from any customer, regardless of race. And some of those stores are, in fact, located in white-majority communities in Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Chicago, he said.
Under federal civil rights law, the plaintiffs in this type of case have a heavy burden of demonstrating that the company acted intentionally, knowing that the checking policy discriminated against African Americans. If successful, the plaintiffs can seek a court order against the practice and damages. Companies in such cases defend themselves by attempting to demonstrate that they acted for business reasons unrelated to race.
The allegations are the latest incident involving complaints of discrimination by African American consumers against retailers throughout the nation and particularly in Prince George's County, the wealthiest majority-black county in the country.
For years, residents have complained that retailers have "red-lined" the community, offering poorer merchandise and failing to open upscale stores in Prince George's. In 1995, a black teenager was forced to remove his shirt by a security guard at an Eddie Bauer store in the county who suspected shoplifting, an incident that many residents considered a flagrant example of discrimination.
The complaint filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt alleges that KB Toys violated the Civil Rights Act and should be forced to stop its alleged discriminatory practices. In court papers, the plaintiffs also ask for unspecified damages.
"Obviously, a lot of people have been affected by this practice, clearly thousands," said John P. Relman, a D.C. attorney for the Equal Rights Center and the women who made the complaints.
The Equal Rights Center began looking into KB Toys' check policies after Avis E. Buchanan, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, complained about her visit to a KB Toys store in Forestville.
Buchanan said she was buying a toy helicopter and radio for her nephews last month when a cashier rejected her personal check.
"I was offended," she said in an interview last night. "Part of me was like, 'Are you telling me my money isn't good enough--that my check wasn't good?' Something told me they wouldn't do this if I were in a white neighborhood."
After Buchanan approached the Equal Rights Center, a center employee, Carolyn Kornegay-Belton, realized that she had had a similar experience at another KB Toys store in Prince George's County in 1997. Both women are now a part of the suit.
Consolidated said there was "no correlation" between race and the company's check-acceptance policies, according to its spokesman Waite. "In fact, the person in finance [at KB Toys] who makes the decision doesn't know the demographics of the store," he added.
But judging by the number of African American dolls in stores in black communities, attorney Relman said, he had a difficult time imagining that KB Toys had not identified ethnic markets.
Earlier this month, the center sent employees and volunteers--both black and white--to KB Toys stores. In the seven stores where personal checks were not accepted, signs were often posted to notify consumers of the policy.
The "testers" then monitored the stores to identify whether most of the shoppers were black or white.
"When testers went to Tysons and Fair Oaks [in Fairfax County], they were told, 'Of course we take checks, Why wouldn't we?' " said David Berenbaum, the center's executive director. "Or it was, 'Don't worry. We don't need your photo I.D.' "