Williams v. Staples , Inc.

Plaintiff Jesse Williams, an African American man, attempted to make a purchase at Staples, Inc. using an out-of-state check, but was denied. Williams v. Staples , Inc., 372 F.3d 662, 665 (4th Cir. 2004). Heather Hutchinson, a white female classmate of Williams, had used an out-of-state check to make a purchase at Staples on the same day that Williams’ check was denied. Id. at 666. He telephoned Staples to complain and was informed that the decision whether or not to accept a particular check is a “judgment call” made on a “case-by-case basis.” Id.

Williams reported the incident to a civil rights agency that used two male testers to observe Staples’ customer treatment practices. Id. The agency sent one black male tester to make a purchase with an out-of-state check. Williams, 372 F.3d at 666. He was told, just as Williams was, that Staples does not accept out-of-state checks. Id. The second tester was a white male who was told that Staples does not typically accept out-of-state checks, but soon thereafter a manager instructed the cashier to accept the check. Id.  After the testers’ confirmations, Williams filed a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 alleging that Staples denied his right to make and enforce a contract on the basis of race. Id. at 667.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined that Williams was denied a basic right, otherwise afforded to white customers, on the basis of his race. Id. at 670. The argument that the employees were simply confused about company policy did not suffice after the testers demonstrated the unequal treatment of customers. The Court acknowledged that, “every judgment call by Staples disadvantage[d] only African–American customers.” Id. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, and remanded for further proceedings. Id.