- Lizzie Pugh, 71, hit the jackpot and won thousands of dollars at a Michigan casino earlier this year.
- When she tried to cash in her check at Fifth Third Bank, she said that she was turned away by employees.
- Now she is filing a lawsuit against the bank. Fifth Third Bank denies her allegations.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Lizzie Pugh is no stranger to racism.
But, decades later and now living in Michigan, the 71-year-old never thought she’d be disdainfully turned away by a bank for trying to cash in honest winnings she collected from Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort during an April trip with her church group.
“I won 20,000, and I was very excited,” Pugh told Insider. “The first time for me.”
Pugh said she went to a Fifth Third Bank branch in Livonia, Michigan — in the Detroit metropolitan area — to open a new savings account but waited for a long time before anyone helped her. Once Pugh, a retiree of Detroit public schools, was finally assisted, she handed over the check and a valid driver’s license.
But, she said, the bank told her the check was “fraudulent” and that she would not be able to make the deposit.
After being accused of trying to cash in a fake check, Pugh said it sent her into a tailspin — conjuring up old memories of racism growing up in Alabama.
Now, Pugh is suing Fifth Third Bank for racial discrimination, saying the incident caused her physical and emotional distress.
‘It’s just overwhelming’
The check, according to the lawsuit, included the casino’s logo and address. The complaint alleges that there was no evidence to back up that the check was not real. But after she handed over the check, the bank refused to give it back.
“They said they couldn’t give me the check back because it was the bank policy to keep checks that were fraudulent,” Pugh said. “And I said, ‘Well, how it’s fraudulent?’ And she said, ‘Oh, we get two or three checks a week like this.”
Pugh said she called her son and a friend during the incident because she was concerned, and even offered to call the police. Ultimately, the employees gave her back the check. She was then able to deposit her check at another bank without any issues, per the complaint.
“It’s just overwhelming that I have to go through all of this,” Pugh said.
Pugh recalled to Insider that it reminded her of the kind of experiences she faced as a kid in Alabama. For instance, she said she has vivid memories of white students beating on their desks in the classroom during the days of school desegregation.
“That frightened me really bad because I really didn’t know why they were beating on their desk,” Pugh said, recalling the incident. “I found out years later that they were demonstrating monkeys hitting on the table.”
‘They’re gonna give you your respect one way or the other’
“We’re seeking damages, monetary damages with regard to what Ms. Pugh has had to go through,” Deborah Gordon, Pugh’s attorney, told Insider, noting that Michigan has a law prohibiting this kind of discrimination.
Fifth Third Bank did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment but told CNN: “We are committed to fair and responsible banking and prohibit discrimination of any kind. 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.”
The bank, which denied the allegations in a court record this week, added that their employees’ actions “have been misinterpreted,” according to the outlet.
“That said, we regret Ms. Pugh has come away feeling mistreated after her interactions at our branch, as our employees’ actions were consistent with our process and the dual goals of serving our customers while also preventing potential frauds that can victimize both the bank and our customers,” the bank told the outlet.
Pugh’s allegations, however, highlight a phenomenon called “Banking while Black,” in which Black Americans often face discrimination while merely trying to cash a check or open a bank account.
Last year, a Black man in Minnesota reached a settlement with US Bank for being racially profiled after an employee accused him of trying to cash a fake check, resulting in him being handcuffed by police. In March, “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler was detained after a Bank of America employee thought he was trying to rob the bank in Atlanta, Georgia.
Pugh’s niece, Yolanda McGee, told Insider that the emotional toll that her aunt has faced is clear.
“She called me on the day of this incident, I heard it in her voice. She was very scared and had a lot of anxiety,” McGee said.
“Being the target of discrimination stirs up a lot of emotions for her, some anger for past incidents, sadness, she’s really embarrassed and cries a lot. And that is what she’s been through back in Alabama, she feels like it’s her fault or that’s what the rule is.”
She continued, “I encouraged her. You’re gonna stand up for yourself. They’re gonna give you your respect one way or the other. They’re gonna figure out a way to make her whole and give her back her dignity. And that’s what she feels that she lost… her dignity in that bank.”