Black woman, 71, sues after bank workers allegedly refuse to cash five-figure jackpot check
Three white employees at a Fifth Third Bank in Michigan would not process, and initially would not return, what they told Lizzie Pugh was a fraudulent check.
In what her attorney refers to as “banking while Black,” a 71-year-old Black retiree has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit alleging three white bank employees in Michigan refused to return what they believed to be a fraudulent five-figure lottery check she tried to process.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Lizzie Pugh won an unspecified jackpot amount on a slot machine during a church outing at Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, on April 9. She paid the jackpot taxes there and left with a prize-money check. Two days later, she recalled, she walked into the Fifth Third Bank in Livonia, which is about 20 miles from Detroit, to open a savings account and deposit the check — only to be told it was fraudulent.
“I couldn’t really believe they did that to me,” Pugh said in an interview with the 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.”
According to the lawsuit, Pugh — who is originally from Alabama and relocated to Detroit in 1971 when she was 20 years old — first told two Fifth Third employees that day her check was legitimate. She had even handed over her driver’s license and informed them she was a retiree.
The check reportedly included Pugh’s name and the same residential address that’s on her identification, as well as the Soaring Eagle logo, its location and a memo line that read “SLOT JACKPOT.”
Still, employees at the bank refused to cash the check.
Pugh advised the first two Fifth Third staffers she encountered to call the police, but they declined. Instead, they called in a third employee, who essentially reiterated what she had already been told and, at this point, told her she could not have her check back.
“To think that maybe they would have police coming and running at me — it was humiliating and stressful,” Pugh said, the Free Press reported. “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.”
Pugh first resisted filing a lawsuit because she was sure nothing would change, but her niece, Yolanda McGee, insisted they do so, reminding Pugh that she was no longer in “1950s Alabama” and that she now had rights.
“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,'” McGee said, according to the Free Press. “‘Fifth Third Bank needs to know that they humiliated you. What they did was wrong. And they need to answer for this.'”
McGee assisted her aunt in retaining Deborah Gordon, a lawyer who previously aided a Black man whose compensation check from an employment discrimination complaint was refused by TCF Bank, also in Livonia. Gordon filed a lawsuit against the bank, which later apologized and settled the case privately.
“What happened to Lizzie was really a heartbreaking situation. Given what she has lived through — and to have a happy moment, something she enjoyed, be ruined by being humiliated?” Gordon said, the Free Press reported.
She called the incident “extremely disheartening,” adding, “It’s really unfortunate these stereotypes continue to exist right here in our metro area.” She filed Pugh’s federal lawsuit on Aug. 29.
Although Pugh was able to retrieve her check and open an account with a nearby Chase bank — where her winnings were cleared the following day — the encounter made her reflect on the racism she experienced as a young Black girl growing up in Jim Crow-era Alabama. She recalled attending one of its first desegregated schools, where stones were hurled at her and her siblings and, as the only Black student in her class, her chair was pushed against a wall away from others.
“I was never taught racism,” Pugh said, according to the Free Press. “I didn’t use it or think much of it.”
John Mihelick is identified as the legal counsel for Fifth Third Bank. He declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, but in a statement to the Free Press, Fifth Third Bank said they believe the facts are different from what is being alleged.
“At Fifth Third we are committed to fair and responsible banking, and prohibit discrimination of any kind,” the institution said in a statement to the Free Press. “From our review of the claims, we believe the facts to be different than what is alleged. Our employees are trained to help every customer with their banking needs, and our employees follow procedures to facilitate the opening of any new account.”
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!