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“Banking while Black”: Woman sues Chase Bank alleging discrimination at Aurora branch

A Black woman is suing JP Morgan Chase Bank and one of its managers over allegations that the branch manager in Aurora discriminated against her because of her race and called the cops on her “merely for engaging in routine and mundane chores the rest of us do daily.”

Jeanetta Vaughn has been a Chase Bank customer since 2019, and on June 9, 2022, she went into the branch location at 1101 South Buckley Road to pick up some checks, she said. She had been sitting in the lobby for less than two minutes when branch manager and vice president Trina Pelech, a white woman, approached her and loudly asked if she could help her, according to the complaint. After Vaughn told her she would get in line after unlocking her card, according to the complaint, a short confrontation ensued that ended in Pelech telling Vaughn that she was “not welcome here” and requesting police response.

Pelech called 911 about Vaughn, alleging she was being aggressive, trespassing and recording her in the bank against policy, according to an audio recording of the call provided to The Denver Post by Vaughn’s attorneys. Vaughn was not charged with a crime, and left the bank after speaking to police and her husband arrived at the scene, Aurora police body camera footage, provided by the attorneys, show.

The attorneys at Rathod Mohamedbhai, LLC, filed the lawsuit against the bank and Pelech in Arapahoe District Court on Friday after Vaughn submitted a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the division issued a notice of right to sue. They allege that Chase made false statements about Vaughn recording inside the bank and pointing the camera at Pelech when Chase’s surveillance videos show otherwise.

Pelech did not return a request for comment Friday. Chase spokesperson Maura Cordova said in a written statement, “We disagree with the allegation,” but did not elaborate further.

“What happened to me was wrong,” Vaughn told The Denver Post. “And it has really disturbed me so badly that I felt that I needed to do something about it, not just for myself, but for people who will come after me or those who have gone through this at that bank maybe before me that didn’t really do anything about it.”

The 61-year-old woman said the incident hurt her and made her fearful, despite being from a law enforcement family — her brother was killed in the line of duty and her father was a cop — and has since caused her to have difficulty sleeping and eating. During the incident, she was embarrassed as other customers were watching and other bank tellers laughed, she said.

“Inherent in such actions is the very real threat of arrest and physical violence; and doing so invokes the ghosts of segregation not long past when White citizens frequently exploited law enforcement to relegate Black citizens to second-class status, entrenching racist hierarchies and weaponizing the police to exclude Black citizens from the public sphere,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit and statements Vaughn made to officers, recorded on body camera footage, Vaughn had sat down in a chair in the lobby that day before she was ready to speak to a teller. She was unlocking her bank card, which she said she had locked for security reasons, adding that she worked as a federal employee for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs at the time.

Chase allows customers to lock debit cards at any point to prevent purchases or stop fraud, and Vaughn said she locks her card between purchases. She was sitting on the chairs, using the Chase mobile app, to unlock her card.

Vaughn said she was then approached by Pelech who asked if she could help her, but Vaughn said she told her she would go to a counter when she was ready. Then, Pelech told Vaughn she didn’t need to be rude and became angry, according to the suit.

Pelech, however, alleged that Vaughn had initially ignored her and then became rude and aggressive toward the branch manager telling her to go away, before starting to record her. Although Pelech acknowledged there are no signs about recording, the bank prohibits doing so to prevent the taping of bank procedures that could be used as part of a robbery plan, Pelech told officers.

Vaughn pointed out to the officers that the chairs in the lobby were there for a reason, and the lawsuit states that Pelech was the one who approached Vaughn, speaking to her in a “hateful tone” and raising her voice. Vaughn also said that although she threatened to record Pelech — and only after Pelech threatened to call the cops — she never mentioned recording bank procedures and didn’t actually record anything, noting that officers’ body cameras would capture the interaction.

The interaction between the two lasted less than a minute, according to the lawsuit, before Pelech went into a back room, and according to body camera footage, did not come back out, even after police arrived.

“It was the most bizarre thing and shocking thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, because it happened so quickly,” Vaughn said.

An Aurora officer spoke to Pelech in the backroom, and the lawsuit states that when Pelech was providing her version of the story to the officers, as could be seen in the body camera footage, she was “mimicking how Black women supposedly speak, with her hand raised, her neck swinging, and her face fixed into a scowl.

These types of gestures are typical of the “‘Angry Black Woman’ trope,” according to the lawsuit.

When the officer told Pelech that Vaughn felt singled out because of her race, Pelech allegedly rolled her eyes and said “yeah, that’s always the excuse, and the excuse is not accurate.”

Although Pelech called Vaughn aggressive in the 911 call, she agreed with the officer who spoke to her that Vaughn did not appear to be a danger. However, she said she had the authority to remove someone from the bank and that people couldn’t come in and treat employees disrespectfully or record.

“I mean, it’s just not going to happen,” Pelech told the officer.

After Vaughn’s husband arrived, the pair left to go to another bank location.

The lawsuit states that no one throughout the incident asks for proof of Vaughn’s membership with Chase.

The lawsuit states that Chase has a pattern of discrimination against Black customers “giving voice to the adverse consequences of ‘banking while Black.” The complaint lists several cases of alleged mistreatment across the country against Black customers and employees. At the specific Aurora branch Vaughn went into, the lawsuit states, Chase admitted to receiving four racial discrimination complaints since September 2021, three of which were made by Black customers.

“These customers complained that they were discriminated against with regard to cashing a check, restrictions on their account, being asked additional identifying questions, and not receiving promotional credit for opening an account,” it states.

Attorneys allege a violation of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, discrimination based on race in violation of federal law, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. It does not specify an amount for damages.

“We’ve seen this kind of behavior before, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Black person selling lemonade or having a barbecue or just watching birds in a park, they’re trying to assert their power over Black Americans,” attorney Crist Whitney said.

“What (Pelech) did by calling the cops — that was dangerous — and put Ms. Vaughn’s life in jeopardy … just because she’s supposedly being rude,” he added.

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