Judge Orders Dillards, Inc. Not to Destroy Security Documents; Action Comes In Suit By 18 Customers Alleging Bias.
A Texas district judge today ordered Dillards Department Stores not to destroy security personnel notebooks and logs that plaintiffs in lawsuits against the retailer claim may show systematic targeting of minority and low-income shoppers for surveillance and intimidation.
The order came in an emergency hearing requested by lawyers for 12 adults and six teens -- all African American -- who filed a lawsuit against Dillards on Aug. 30, for false imprisonment, assault and battery, emotional distress, invasion of privacy and intentional misconduct at the hands of Dillards security guards at stores in Beaumont and Port Arthur. Mary Frazier, et al, vs. Dillards, Inc., et al, was filed in the 58th District Court of Jefferson County, Texas.
The order highlights attention to Dillards' mounting legal woes related to allegations of targeting minorities and persons who appear to be of lower economic status for suspicion of shoplifting, and its controversial practice of using only armed, off-duty law enforcement officers as in-store security.
According to records produced to Cletus P. Ernster, a Houston attorney who represents the 18 store customers, a Dillards official in May 2000, ordered that all security officer notebooks, logs and other documents be sent to corporate headquarters and that no copies be retained by local stores. An internal email dated July 2001 stated that "All unauthorized forms or notebooks containing narrative information of non-arrest activity must be destroyed." The order by District Court Judge James Mehaffy said Dillards must not destroy any security documents from any Dillards store that contains information pertaining to non-arrest activities.
"We believe these documents contain evidence, not only for our case but for the many like it across the country, that Dillards security officers and employees routinely observed and noted the socio-economic status, race and gender of customers and made their decision whether or not to watch them or subject them to harassment based on those criteria," he said.
"The hassles of holiday shopping take on an entirely different perspective when you know about this kind of thinking," he noted.
The suit accuses Dillards of violating provisions of the Texas Constitution banning racial discrimination and asks for unspecified damages relating to mental and emotional distress, humiliation and defamation. A trial is set for September 2003.
The Little Rock, AR-based retailer has been hit with dozens of lawsuits in recent years accusing it of unfairly targeting minority shoppers for surveillance and harassment. The store also has stirred controversy for its policy of hiring armed, off-duty police officers to provide security, rather than using a trained, unarmed civilian force like most other major retailers. Since 1994, at least six people have died after confrontations with Dillards security officers, a figure unmatched by any other major retailer. Four of those deaths have been in Texas.
Accusations of racial profiling have drawn national attention from two high-profile cases: Paula Hampton, a black woman, won a $1.16 million jury award in 1997, for an incident in an Overland Park, KS, Dillards store. Hampton prevailed on appeal. In 1995, Zebbie Lethridge, a former Dallas Cowboys cornerback who is also black, won a $22.5 million judgment against Dillards for an incident that occurred at a Lubbock, TX, Dillards, while he was the starting quarterback for Texas Tech University. The suit was later settled for an undisclosed sum.
Dillards, which operates 250 stores in 25 states, instituted a policy in 1990 of hiring only off-duty police officers to provide store security. According to a Jan. 8 internal memo obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in a lengthy investigation of the company's security issues, the company made the move to reduce "costly litigation" associated with "false arrest, malicious prosecution and assault litigation."
Attorneys for Dillards have argued in many lawsuits alleging false arrest, imprisonment and wrongful death that the company should not be held liable because the off-duty police officers were acting in their official capacity, not as corporate employees, even though they were being paid by Dillards at the time.
The latest death occurred Nov. 14, in Cleveland, OH. Guy Willis, 41, died of injuries he received during an altercation Nov. 9, with a security officer at an area Dillards. Other fatal incidents have occurred at Dillards stores in Arlington, El Paso, San Antonio and Houston, all in TX, and in Memphis, TN.
The plaintiffs in the Beaumont lawsuit are residents of Port Arthur, Orange, Silsbee, Nederland and Beaumont. The incidents occurred in 1992, 2000, 2001 and 2002.
For More Information Contact Mike Kelly, (512) 327-6788
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CONTACT: Mike Kelly, +1-512-327-6788, for Chargois & Ernster, L.L.P.
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|Date:||Dec 11, 2002|
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