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A Black doctor says she was refused service at a bank because of her race: ‘I felt like a criminal’

A pedestrian passes a Chase bank branch in New York on Jan. 13. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)
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With a $16,000 check in hand, Malika Mitchell-Stewart walked into a JPMorgan Chase bank near Houston in December, proud and excited to open a bank account and deposit her first check as a newly employed physician.

But her elation quickly faded when employees refused to open an account for her and accused the doctor, who is Black, of attempting to commit fraud, court documents say.

On Wednesday, Mitchell-Stewart sued JPMorgan Chase Bank, First Colony Branch in Sugar Land, Tex., along with two employees, in federal court for racial discrimination.

“The discrimination she faced is pattern and practice when it comes to Black people engaging with financial institutions in this country,” Mitchell-Stewart’s attorney, Justin Moore, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “For a Black female physician to be treated this way by Chase is a devastating reminder that no matter how hard we try and how far we climb, major corporations in this country still view us as if we are nothing.”

Banking while Black: Minority business owners with better credit scores than White counterparts face worse treatment and more scrutiny

JPMorgan Chase said in a statement that company officials are “investigating the situation.”

“We take this matter very seriously,” the statement said. “We have reached out to Dr. Mitchell-Stewart to better understand what happened and apologize for her experience.”

Racial discrimination in banking, a phenomenon sometimes called “banking while Black,” is a common experience in the United States. Several instances of Black people being questioned about their deposits and accused of fraud have made national headlines.

In November 2017, a Black woman in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said a Wells Fargo branch employee accused her of forgery and called police when she tried to deposit a $140 check. She sued Wells Fargo for racial discrimination eight months later and ultimately reached a confidential settlement with the bank. In another case in January 2020, a 44-year-old Black man from Detroit who had just settled a discrimination lawsuit with his former employer was accused of fraud when he tried to deposit the settlement check. He, too, sued for racial discrimination and, according to CNN, reached a settlement with the bank.

Discrimination also often occurs with small business loans. A 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that minority business owners are scrutinized more harshly and treated worse than White counterparts with lower credit scores when meeting with bankers about loans. According to the study, White test subjects were treated better by employees and asked fewer questions about their eligibility for a loan. Black applicants, however, were more frequently asked about their education level, credit and personal finances.

Mitchell-Stewart’s experience on Dec. 18 is another example of racial bias in banking, her lawyer said. The doctor, who recently finished her residency, had just been hired by a medical group in Houston and received a signing bonus of $16,780.16. But when she arrived at the bank in a “predominantly white affluent suburb,” the lawsuit says, the bank teller began asking her “peculiar questions” and “challenged the validity of the Check and her employment as a physician.”

He settled a racial discrimination lawsuit. When he tried to deposit the checks, police were called.

The employee allegedly said she needed to get a branch manager to help verify the check. A second employee, who represented herself as the branch manager, said she “did not feel comfortable allowing her to open a bank account” because of her suspicion that Mitchell-Stewart was “attempting to commit fraud,” according to the lawsuit.

“They took my special moment away,” Mitchell-Stewart told KTRK. “I felt like a criminal.”

Mitchell-Stewart allegedly showed the branch employees her identification, business card and emails showing proof that she was starting a job at the medical practice. She also explained that a “clean record” is required to get a medical license, she told KTRK-TV.

“You have to go to school for so many years, and they just didn’t care,” she said. “They didn’t respect that. They didn’t respect my credentials.”

Mitchell-Stewart went home feeling humiliated, according to the lawsuit. She returned to First Colony Branch on Dec. 27 to file a complaint. When she spoke with a branch manager, Mitchell-Stewart was told the person who had claimed to be branch manager days earlier was an associate banker, the lawsuit says.

The manager said Mitchell-Stewart should have been able to open an account and deposit the check, according to the lawsuit. The manager then apologized but “stated that Chase can refuse service to people without justification,” court documents say. The lawsuit does not state the race of any of the Chase employees.

In her lawsuit, Mitchell-Stewart accuses the employees of acting “out of racial animus” and violating her civil rights. She is asking for at least $1 million in damages, as well as compensation for other fees related to the lawsuit, according to court documents.

“Courageously, Dr. Mitchell-Stewart decided to not let Chase treat her like a criminal because she is Black, and is seeking to fight back with a civil rights lawsuit,” Moore, her attorney, said. “We all should be inspired by her resolve and willingness to fight back.”