Few companies do PR better than Apple. But sometimes the giant makes a glaring mistake. Here's a recent example that should serve as a warning that you always, always, always pay attention to how customers think they're being treated.

A lawsuit filed on June 9 on behalf of a white mother with multiple sclerosis and her black daughter daughter of a very wealthy family alleges that Apple employees and contractors physically restrained and detained the two at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego.

By the way, the wife, Christine Wisne, is married to Lawrence Wisne, a major businessman in the Detroit area and former CEO of Progressive Tool & Industries, an auto equipment manufacturer. The Wisne family sold the company to Fiat for $350 million in 1999 and he's been involved in a number of businesses since. In other words, these are well-heeled people -- the type stores usually go out of their way to favor.

Christine Wisne and her 23-year-old daughter, Angelica Hughes, entered the Apple store to buy an iMac and a MacBook. According to the complaint, the two women said that they were under constant surveillance and accompanied by a store representative from the time they entered, even though the store was very crowded.

At 5:20, Mrs. Wisne paid $3,228.04 for the items, according to a receipt, with an American Express Centurion Card, also known as the "Black Card." The store rep asked for identification and then said that because of the amount, he had to speak to a manager. The charge went through and the rep offered to help carry the products out to the car. Wisne declined the offer.

Wisne and Hughes were "in the parking structure when [an employee of a contract security firm] rushes out and grabs her," James Daily, lawyer for the two women, told me. "He certainly detained her, he assaulted and battered her, he restrained her [with handcuffs], he dragged her back into the mall, through the mall, into the Apple store, while Angelica is pleading."

The two women were allegedly brought into a back room that Daily calls Apple Jail and kept there for hours. An Apple employee, not a contractor, reportedly physically blocked the room's door, preventing the women from leaving. Hughes took some photographs with her phone at the time, including one allegedly of her mother handcuffed and another of a bruised arm.

After checking with what seemed to be supervisors, employees ultimately took back the computers, processed a credit on the card for the full amount, and provided a receipt time-stamped approximately 8:40, according to Daily.

Daily said that he and the family tried for close to a year to get an explanation from Apple. (I talked to Apple but they company refused to comment.) "I contacted them, I sent letters, it didn't go anywhere," he said. "In essence I drafted what was the complaint that was filed last week. An attorney contacted me and told me to contact [the security company]." Daily said that he has also sought video footage from the Apple and the mall, although he has received none.

"You get a case like Mrs. Wisne where you can strip away anything about her behavior, is finances, her motivation, and you come to this core and it's rotten," Daily said. They say the only reason the women went through this was because Hughes was black.

You could possibly write this off as the inept work of some employees -- well, more than some -- except this is not the first accusation of racial discrimination that Apple has faced. A PR person I know who first mentioned the suit to me, put together a list of past allegations once she heard about the incident, figuring that she'd catch some web traffic. Here are some of the examples:

  • Two black men claimed in 2011 that an employee in a New York City Apple store told them to leave because of their race.
  • An Iranian-American woman -- a U.S. citizen -- and her uncle filed suit in 2012 when an Apple store in Alpharetta, Georgia would not sell an iPad and iPhone to them because they were speaking Farsi and were asked what country they were from. The store claimed company policy forbid shipment of products to Iran, although the plaintiffs said no one asked them if the products would leave the country.
  • A recently unsealed federal lawsuit from 2013 alleged that employees were not paid wages while being forced to wait while their bags were routinely checked for stolen goods before they were allowed to leave the store.
  • Last year a Florida man who worked at Apple filed a complaint with the state's Commissions on Human Relations, claiming that he was denied a promotion because he was black.
  • In 2011, a part-time employee accused Apple and a senior manager at a St. Louis, Missouri store of racial and gender discrimination and retaliation.

It's not a long list, but combined with a lawsuit by people who don't need the money, it looks ugly, whether that is fair or not. The suit claims the action was an act of racial profiling and discrimination and are suing on a number of counts, including alleged infringements of civil rights; assault and battery; false arrest, detention, and imprisonment; and defamation. The complaint "seeks remedy for plaintiffs and to bring an end, once and for all, to APPLE INC.'s disturbing, unlawful, and discriminatory pattern and practice of racially profiling and disproportionately following, stopping, detaining, harassing and accusing innocent customers of color of shoplifting, fraud and other acts of larceny through an injunction against such behavior."

Apple often supports issues of equal treatment, but something like this shows how easy it can be for a company to look like it's in trouble. It also shows how trying to be protective can backfire.

Although apologies go against what many lawyers advise, you have to wonder if they are ultimately as expensive as toughing things out. But then, there probably won't be a comment to let anyone know.

Published on: Jun 15, 2015
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