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Berry v. Target Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

October 6, 2016

MONA LISA BERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
TARGET CORPORATION, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. S. Ellis, III United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Mona Lisa Berry, an African-American, was shopping at a Target store in Falls Church, Virginia when, after placing items into her shopping cart and moving toward the checkout line, a store employee accosted her, accused her of shoplifting, using a racial slur in doing so, and required her to go to a back room in the store where she was handcuffed and kept waiting for 40 minutes until the police arrived. On the basis of Target's accusations, plaintiff was prosecuted for shoplifting, but a jury acquitted her. These facts, plaintiff contends, establish her claims for violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Va. Code § 8.01-42.1, as well as claims for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution under Virginia common law.

         Defendants Target Corporation and Jonas Garcia filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), Fed.R.Civ.P. The matter was fully briefed and argued orally, following which a bench ruling issued denying defendants' motion. This memorandum opinion elucidates the reasons for that ruling.

         I.

         Plaintiff Mona Lisa Berry, an African-American, resides in Arlington, Virginia. Defendant Target Corporation is incorporated in Minnesota and operates the Skyline Target store in Falls Church, Virginia. Defendant Jonas Garcia worked at the Skyline Target as a "Senior Asset Protection Specialist" during the time relevant to this action.

         On August 29, 2014, plaintiff was shopping at the Skyline Target store. Shortly after entering the store, Garcia began following plaintiff. Garcia also told other store employees to track her movements with the store's surveillance system. Plaintiff ignored Garcia and continued shopping, putting a plastic storage container and a rug into her shopping cart. Before checking out, she saw a merchandise display that contained bags of potato chips located inside the main entrance/exit doors. Plaintiff moved her shopping cart up to the display and selected a bag of chips for purchase. At that point, she had been in the store for 90 minutes.

         As plaintiff proceeded to the checkout counter, Garcia ran up to her, accosted her, and accused her of shoplifting. As he was doing so, Garcia used a racial slur to inform someone over his cell phone or radio that "I got me another n***er." Garcia then ushered plaintiff to what Target calls a "loss prevention interrogation room, " where she was handcuffed and required to wait for 40 minutes until the police arrived. During this time, Garcia went through the items in her cart and searched her purse. He discovered no hidden store items, but did find that plaintiff had several hundred dollars in cash, as well as credit cards, in her wallet, which was more than enough to pay for the merchandise she had selected and placed in her shopping cart. While plaintiff was in the room, Garcia told her that "y'all come in here and steal." When plaintiff asked who he was referring to when he said "y'all, " Garcia did not respond.

         Defendants did not allow plaintiff to purchase the items she had selected and placed in her shopping cart. Instead, they ordered her to remain in handcuffs for about 40 minutes until a police officer arrived. As a result of Target's accusations, the officer arrested plaintiff and transported her to jail. Target then pressed formal charges against plaintiff for grand larceny. A jury acquitted her of this charge. Then, in July 2016, plaintiff filed this action, alleging four claims: (1) a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981; (2) a violation of Va. Code 8.01-42.1; (3) false imprisonment; and (4) malicious prosecution. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., for failure to state a claim.

         II.

         The standard for the factual sufficiency of a complaint is well-established. Under the familiar Iqbal/Twombly[1]standard, the "well-pled allegations of the complaint" must be accepted as true and the "facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom" must be construed "in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Harbourt v. PPE Casino Resorts Md, LLC, 820 F.3d 655, 658 (4th Cir. 2016). The complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face" such that the court can draw "the reasonable inference" that defendants committed the alleged violations. McCleary-Evans v. Md. Dep 't of Transp., State Highway Admin., 780 F.3d 582, 585 (4th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted). Plaintiffs complaint meets this standard with respect to all four claims.

         A.

         Section 1981(a) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides that "[a]ll persons ... shall have the same right... to make and enforce contracts ... as is enjoyed by white persons." The statute defines "make and enforce contracts" to include "the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship." 42 U.S.C. § 1981(b). Plaintiff contends that defendants violated that statute because they prevented her from buying the items in her shopping cart based on racial animus.

         In this circuit, to state "a prima facie case of discrimination in a § 1981 cause of action relating to the purchase of goods and services, " plaintiff must allege facts to the effect that: (1) she is a member of a protected class, (2) she "sought to enter into a contractual relationship with the defendant[s], " (3) she "met the defendant[s'] ordinary requirements to pay for and to receive goods or services ordinarily provided by the defendant[s] to other similarly situated customers, " and (4) she was "denied the opportunity to contract for goods or services that was otherwise afforded to white customers." Williams v. Staples, Inc., 372 F.3d 662, 667 (4th Cir. 2004).

         Plaintiffs complaint alleges facts that meet each of these elements. As an African-American, plaintiff is a member of a protected class and obviously satisfies the first element. Id. at 668. The second element - that plaintiff "sought to enter into a contractual relationship" with Target - is also satisfied because she was trying to buy items at the store. See Id. Indeed, plaintiff had selected several items to purchase, placed these items in her shopping cart, and was on the way to the checkout line when Garcia accosted her, accused her of shoplifting, and required her to go to a back room in the store. The third element - that plaintiff met the "ordinary requirements" to purchase her selected items - is also met because she clearly had the means to pay for them. See Id. The fourth element - that plaintiff was denied the opportunity to purchase her ...


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