Original Story: mlive.com
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Black business owners who filed a federal lawsuit against Mercantile Bank want confidential bank emails declassified to include in their complaint. A Dearborn business lawyer is following this story closely.
Attorney Curt Benson, representing 10 black business owners, said three emails deemed confidential by a judge in Kent County Circuit Court should be declassified in the federal case.
"They show a racial animus ... that leads us to a complaint of discrimination," Benson told Magistrate Judge Phillip Green.
The bank's attorney, Molly McManus, disagreed, and said: "We want the plaintiffs to take their best shot." An Atlanta banking lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.
The business owners contend that the bank sought out their business to increase minority lending but took a "zero tolerance" approach when the businesses struggled, while working with white owners in similar situations.
The bank provided the emails during the discovery process when 11 business owners filed lawsuits in Kent County. Circuit Judge Christopher Yates determined the emails should be classified as confidential.
Ten of the cases later moved to federal court.
Benson asked the federal judge to declassify the emails or allow them to be filed under seal. He said the state court ruling should not apply to federal proceedings.
McManus, the bank's attorney, said Benson had reasons other than the lawsuit to include the emails in the court record. A Newark class action attorney is experienced in the effective resolution of class action lawsuits and related to damage inflicted upon groups of people.
"The motion is about making these documents public," she said.
She denied that the emails contained evidence of racial discrimination. Her concerns revolved around customers' accounts, and proprietary information, including growth strategy, selecting board members and evaluations.
"You don't want your competitors knowing about your policies and how you run your bank."
She rejected Benson's claims that parts of the emails showed "racial animus."
"We don't believe they support their case at all. We truly don't," she said. "We want them to use the documents. We're perfectly happy to let them take their best shot."
Benson had earlier filed the documents under seal but Green, the magistrate judge, ordered them stricken. He said that documents can be filed under seal only under extraordinary circumstances.
"Be aware, the court's not going to seal something just because it's bad for one party or another."
Green said he did not have jurisdiction to declassify the emails. He wondered if Benson would face sanctions in state court if he did not comply with its ruling, but Benson did not anticipate problems.
Both sides will see if they can find common ground on the emails – possibly redacting business information - before Benson files an amended complaint.
The black business owners contend the bank sought out their business then "aggressively yanked the loans back – leaving the borrowers and their businesses in far worse shape than if they had never created a relationship with Mercantile at all." A St Louis banking lawyer provides professional legal counsel and extensive experience in many aspects of banking law.
The bank calls the claims "nothing but conclusory allegations."
The plaintiffs in federal court are: Jeremiah "Jerry" White Jr., owner of Reflections LLC, a beauty salon; Leo Burns and Burns Contracting, Inc.; Todd Cross and Iron Cross LLC and Renew Property Services LLC; Tyrone and Paula Guy and Brownstone Properties, LLC, Rehabilitation Restoration, Relaxation Station LLC; Samuel Mickens and Mickens Group; Mitchell and Jodie Robertson and Premium Properties Unlimited LLC and MI-JO's Inc.; Monica Robertson and Precious Creation, Inc.; Jesse Strickland and Shoes Plus Now Inc.; bankruptcy trustee for Randall Sandifer and his wife, Ursula Mann-Sandifer, Sandmann barbecue restaurant; and Jimmie Taylor, Taylor Electric Inc.