Los Angeles Times

Court Affirms $1.2M Verdict

A federal appeals court has upheld the $1.2 million verdict against Dillard's Inc. in a bias lawsuit by a Black woman who said she was denied a free cologne sample because of her race.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision issued Tuesday, affirmed the 1997 award of damages to Paula Hampton. It also upheld the lower court's dismissal of a companion claim by Demetria Cooper, Hampton's niece. Unlike Hampton, Cooper had not purchased anything when the two women went to the Dillard's department store at the Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City.

Hampton and Cooper testified that they bought an Easter outfit for Cooper's 1-year-old son. Hampton paid for it, and both women received coupons for a free sample at the fragrance counter.

But a Dillard's security guard accused the women of shoplifting, and detained them. No evidence of theft was found. But the confrontation kept Hampton from getting her perfume sample.

Dillard's argued that Wilson had probable cause to stop Hampton.

Hampton's husband said he hoped the decision would spur Dillard's to change what he termed its practice of profiling Black shoppers.

"Dillard's has a huge problem with profiling, which they have gotten away with for years,'' said Oscar Hampton III, a lawyer. "I'm just glad the court has said what they're doing is wrong and that they shouldn't be able to do it anymore.''

The 56-page opinion by Judge Robert Henry said the jury's inference of racial discrimination was "a reasonable one.'' In a six-page dissent, Judge Stephen Anderson said there was no evidence that the incident was racially motivated.

Dillard's spokesman Skip Rutherford said the Little Rock, Ark.-based department-store chain hadn't had time to review the decision.

"But we understand there is a strong dissent supporting our position, which is no discrimination occurred against the Hampton party,'' he said.

Jack Whitacre, a Kansas City lawyer representing Dillard's, said the company asked him to petition for a rehearing before the three-judge panel or the entire 10th Circuit. Dillard's has 14 days to file the petition.

In the Hampton case an all-white jury awarded $56,000 in actual damages and $1.1 million in punitive damages, plus attorney's fees of $165,000.

The case technically concerned the application of a Civil War-era statute, and whether Dillard's had unlawfully interfered with Hampton's right to make and enforce a contract under it.

The jury found that Hampton was entitled to a free cologne sample as a "benefit or privilege'' for having purchased clothing. It also concluded that that Dillard's "intentionally interfered'' with her ability to get the sample and that race was a motivating factor in its conduct.

The trial included testimony that Dillard's "tracked'' Blacks after they entered the store, used race "codes'' that highlighted Black shoppers as suspicious and wrote store incident reports differentiating shoppers primarily by race.

The Hampton case was one of several filed against Kansas City-area Dillard's stores by minority shoppers and employees alleging racial bias. One pending case filed by a former sales associate at the Oak Park and Bannister Mall stores has been joined by seven other plaintiffs charging Dillard's with employment discrimination, which the company denies.

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