Dillard’s suit part of pattern

Analysis of court documents reveals dozens of similar complaints
Friday, July 27, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:31 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Columbia- A 2003 lawsuit against Dillard’s in Columbia, which appears likely to go to trial, contains allegations that “suggest a larger pattern of race based harassment,” wrote Judge Diana Murphy of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in the court’s opinion released last week.

The pattern might be very large, indeed.

An analysis of court documents relating to civil rights litigation against Dillard’s Inc. reveals that, for more than a decade, dozens of similar complaints have been filed against the Arkansas-based retailer. The lawsuits, which have involved as many as 70 plaintiffs at a time, have accused Dillard’s of systematically discriminating against minority shoppers at stores in 12 states.

Two cases resulted in judgments of close to a million dollars against the retail giant.

In 1996, Paula Hampton, a black woman, was shopping with her daughter and a friend at the Dillard’s in the Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kan. She was accosted by Dillard’s security guard Tom Wilson in the women’s fragrance department.

Wilson overturned her bag on the counter in front of several other patrons, as well as Hampton’s daughter. When Hampton complained that she was a regular Dillard’s customer and didn’t appreciate being treated that way, Wilson ordered her to calm down and threatened to have the police remove her from the building if she did not.

Hampton sued for false imprisonment and violations of the Civil Rights Act. A jury awarded her $1.2 million, and in 2001, an appeals court upheld the jury’s verdict.

The same year, a Texas appeals court upheld an $800,000 verdict against Dillard’s for the wrongful death of Darryl Robinson in 1994. While shopping at a Dillard’s in Houston, Robinson became involved in an altercation with two Dillard’s security guards, who also happened to be part-time sheriff’s deputies.

The officers took Robinson, who was black, to a back office and beat him until his ribs broke. They hogtied him with tape and taped his mouth shut. Sales associates testified that his face and arms were covered with carpet burns, and he was foaming at the mouth.

Later, the officers wheeled Robinson, bound and barely breathing, out of the office on a flatbed dolly and dumped him on a curb outside the store. When emergency responders arrived 10 minutes later, they were able to revive Robinson, but only temporarily. He died in a hospital room two days later.

Robinson’s case was not unique. In all, six men have been killed by Dillard’s security guards, four in Texas alone. All but one of the victims have been black or Hispanic.

Kenneth Gregory, a Columbia police sergeant and former security guard for Dillard’s in the Columbia Mall, testified in the 2003 lawsuit that the store’s confrontational “zero tolerance” policy for shoplifters was often interpreted differently depending on the race of the suspect.

“Gregory contrasted the store’s treatment of white shoplifters, who were sometimes allowed to leave if they returned the stolen merchandise or paid for it, with that of others who were arrested and prosecuted even though they offered to reimburse the store,” Murphy wrote in the decision.

Gregory testified that the store’s manager, Don Edson, once intervened to prevent him from arresting a white shoplifter.

Neither Gregory nor Edson could be reached for comment.

In 2004, an article in the Houston Press linked discriminatory outcomes at the retail level to a culture of racial bigotry that emanated from the highest corporate officers, including former CEO and company founder William Dillard Sr.

According to that article, “A Closer Look at Dillard’s,” former vice president for personnel Archie Crittenden was at one point ordered by Dillard and vice chairman Ray Kemp “not to hire any more blacks.” The two are also reported to have discussed moving a black employee in the corporate offices to a different area just “so Dillard Sr. wouldn’t see her when he entered the building.”

Reached at home, Crittenden said he did not wish to make any comments about his former employer.

Dillard’s representative Julie Bull did not respond to a request for an interview about the lawsuit.

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