In a Raft of New Lawsuits, Black Oregonians Say Leading Retailers Profiled and Persecuted Them

The cases follow a $4.4 million shopping-while-Black verdict in Multnomah County last year.

By Nigel Jaquiss, Willamette Week

March 08, 2023


They hold different jobs: actor, banker, creative director, maintenance technician and sheriff’s deputy. They got detained at different stores: Home Depot, Safeway, Sephora and Walmart.

But they use the same words to describe their alleged experiences: “humiliating,” “demeaning” and “embarrassing.”

And they have another thing in common. Jordan Dinwiddie, Eberechi Onyenze, Ramone Palmore, Nathaniel Poe and Larry Wright say they were discriminated against for shopping while Black.

“It really makes me not want to live here,” says Dinwiddie, who moved to Portland a decade ago for a job at the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. “Maybe this would have happened in Chicago, where I’m from. But it didn’t. It happened in the whitest city in America.”

Dinwiddie is one of more than a dozen clients on whose behalf the Kafoury & McDougal law firm is filing lawsuits in Multnomah County Circuit Court in the coming weeks. The lawsuits name several national retailers.

In 2022, Kafoury & McDougal won a $4.4 million verdict against Walmart on behalf of Michael Mangum, who said he’d been racially profiled at a Walmart in Wood Village. After that, says Jason Kafoury, the lead attorney on the new cases, the firm’s phones rarely stopped ringing. (Walmart has appealed the verdict.)

“We have had an explosion of these cases since the Black Lives Matter movement,” Kafoury says. “I think Trump gave racist people permission to become more blatantly racist. I also think big-box stores are getting more aggressive with their security.”

Shoplifting makes for splashy news coverage, and senior executives at stores such as Walmart and Target have cited its rise during the pandemic as a drag on profits. Walgreens made headlines last year when it said it was closing five San Francisco stores because of shoplifting. But one of the company’s top executives walked back that explanation in January, according to The New York Times, telling investors “maybe we cried too much.”

The retail industry’s own statistics do not support the notion of runaway theft: The 2022 National Retail Security Survey shows that “shrinkage” as a percentage of sales was 1.4% in 2021, about the same as the average over the previous six years and lower than the year before the pandemic.

Yet Kafoury and his clients say store security staffers appear to be more aggressive in demanding to see customers’ receipts. The lawsuits contend that big-box stores are racially profiling their customers in the process.

One name conspicuously absent from the sheaf of lawsuits Kafoury is filing: Fred Meyer. In 1996, Kafoury’s father, Greg, won a $475,000 lawsuit against the one-stop shopping center giant over its policy of randomly forcing shoppers to show receipts.

“We almost never get cases against Fred Meyer,” Kafoury says. “It looks like that lawsuit caused them to change their corporate behavior for decades.”

A 2022 national survey of more than 1,000 Black Americans found that more than 90% of them felt they’d been profiled while shopping. While none of those WW interviewed could prove their race prompted the accusations against them, each said white customers walked out of stores where they were detained, unbothered.

 Here are four cases Kafoury filed March 7:

Jordan Dinwiddie 32, creative director, Wieden+Kennedy

Dinwiddie says she’d often browse the Sephora store at 413 SW Morrison St. during her lunch break. But on Jan. 13, she bought three items and left the store, only to be stopped by a security guard.

“He said, ‘I know you stole something. I have the tape and I will call the police,’” she recalls. “I thought he was talking to somebody else. I was confused and scared. Every possible bad scenario was running through my head about when cops are called on Black people.”

Dinwiddie agreed to let the guard search her purse. She also showed him a receipt on her phone for the three items she had bought. “He backed off and let me go,” she says. “I returned the items and I’ll never shop at Sephora again.”

Dinwiddie says having her purse searched in front of midday shoppers felt both humiliating and infuriating. “I was livid,” she says. She’s seeking $999,000 in damages.

Sephora didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Eberechi Onyenze 38, relationship manager, Adventis Credit Union

Onyenze, who moved to the Northwest from Nigeria nine years ago, walked into Home Depot at Jantzen Beach at 6:30 pm on Aug. 13, 2022, excited about buying some new tools: a power washer, a surface cleaner, and a leaf blower. He says the items were locked up, so a sales associate helped him.

She insisted he pay for the first two items before getting the leaf blower. “I told her I wasn’t finished, but she told me the store practice was for me to check out with those items first,” he recalls.

Onyenze paid and went to put the items in his car, intending to come back for the leaf blower. But a security guard and the store manager stopped him first. “The white male yanked the cart containing the items and he said, ‘You dirty bastard, you are banned from this store. Get out of here now,’” Onyenze recalls.

He refused to leave, but his phone, which held his receipt, wasn’t working properly. He contacted his wife, who “arrived at 8 pm and showed them the debit card receipts on her phone,” he says.

He says the manager then told a clerk to refund his payment ($368.97)—and give him the items for free. “I didn’t want that,” he says. “It seemed like a cover-up.” Onyenze is seeking $999,000 in damages.

“We take these claims very seriously and are investigating,” says Home Depot spokesman Terrance Roper. “Respect for all of our customers is a core value, and we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination.”.

Ramone Palmore 37, actor, producer

Palmore says he’s been going to the same Safeway on Southwest Murray Boulevard in Beaverton for more than a decade. On Jan. 26, he went to buy blueberries, prunes, yogurt and granola. He paid at a self-service kiosk but noticed a woman filming him as he left the store. Then, when he got in his car, a security guard stood behind it so he couldn’t back out.

“I’m shook up and and frozen,” Palmore recalls. “I think if these people call the police on me, I could be gunned down.” He got out of the car. “They accused me of stealing over and over again.”

He produced a receipt and then, in an exchange Palmore recorded, the guard and the manager acknowledged their error. When he asked for an explanation, the manager says, “Please just go.”

He pressed the matter. “Is it because I’m a Black guy?” he asked. “Please don’t play that card,” the manager replied.

Palmore left. “I was shaking when I got back to my car,” he says. Normally outgoing, he says he’s seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication for the first time. “Nothing like that’s ever happened to me before,” Palmore says. He’s seeking $999,000 in damages.

Safeway didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Larry Wright (pictured) 26, maintenance technician Nathaniel Poe 25, Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy

On May 26, 2022, Wright accompanied his brother, Poe, to the Wood Village Walmart to pick up medicine for Poe’s infant son. Wright says he spent most of the brief visit on Facebook on his phone. But when the two men, both Black, left the store, a store manager yelled at them to stop.

“I pointed at myself, like, who me?” says Poe, who became a sheriff’s deputy last year. “She pointed at me and said, ‘I saw you stealing,’” Wright recalls. “I said I don’t have anything in my pockets except my phone and my hand. It was super embarrassing and demeaning and in front of everybody in front of the checkstand.”

After the manager determined Wright’s pockets were indeed empty, the men proceeded to the parking lot. “We got almost to my car and it hit me, like, what the hell?’” Poe says. “I said we have to go back in and file a complaint.”

Cellphone video captured the ensuing exchange. “I apologize,” the customer service manager said. “That shouldn’t have been done.” Wright and Poe are seeking $1 million each in damages.

“We take allegations like this seriously and don’t tolerate discrimination,” says Walmart spokeswoman Marci Burks.

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