An administrative law judge has cleared Walmart, the city of Davenport and its police department in a discrimination case that originated nearly six years ago.
Robert Harbin III, James Kirk, Camisha Nelson and Reginald Kirk had filed complaints with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission alleging discrimination in public accommodation on the basis of race after they were escorted out of Walmart's West Kimberly Road store on Nov. 24, 2011, after being suspected of shoplifting.
Judge Laura Lockard issued a proposed decision on Sept. 5 in which she found that Iowa Civil Rights Commission did not prove the respondents "committed an unfair or discriminatory practice."
The complainants could have appealed the decision within 30 days, but Executive Director Kristin Johnson said they elected not to. The Civil Rights Commission was also given the option of initiating a review of the decision within 60 days.
On Walmart's Black Friday event in 2011, loss prevention associate Richard Ewoldt began to follow the four complainants, who are African-American, after observing potentially suspicious behavior.
Ewoldt observed Harbin scratching the packing of a video game with a key, which he said in his testimony led him to believe that Harbin was trying to remove the cellophane from the package. Harbin testified that he was holding his keys in his hands and may have been picking at the packaging which had sticker residue on it.
After the group recognized that they were being followed, Ewoldt radioed another employee about potential shoplifting after it appeared to him as if the group was trying to move through the store quickly in an attempt to lose him.
Sam Miller, a Davenport police officer who was working off-duty at Walmart that day in his police uniform, noticed the group and what he believed was an attempt to conceal the video games.
After Miller asked for the video games, some members of the group became upset. With other customers gathering around, Miller asked for the group to leave and escorted them out. None of the complainants was cited for shoplifting.
The group filed an additional complaint against Miller with the police department that was "not sustained."
A hearing on the case was initially scheduled for Feb. 18 and 19 of 2015, but less than two weeks beforehand, the respondents filed a motion for summary judgement.
The case would head to district court and then the court of appeals in 2016 before the hearing was once again rescheduled for 2017.
The hearing finally took place on May 23 and 24 of 2017 in Davenport City Council Chambers.
In the commission's arguments, it cited a similar incident involving two Caucasian girls who were caught shoplifting that day. In that incident, the girls were taken to the loss prevention office to discuss the matter in privacy before they were cited for theft.
While Lockard called the treatment "discriminatory," she found that the respondents presented legitimate cause for stopping the group and reason to eject them from the store.
Those actions, she wrote, were not proven to be motivated by race.