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Video: Bank insists on thumbprint from armless man

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updated 9/7/2009 10:31:22 AM ET 2009-09-07T14:31:22

The Americans with Disabilities Act will be 20 years old next year, and Steve Valdez is still wondering when a Bank of America branch near his Tampa, Fla., home is going to hear about it.

The 54-year-old Hillsborough County employee told TODAY’s Lester Holt Monday in New York he is still irked by what happened to him recently when he went into the branch, where his wife has an account, to cash a check made out to her. The teller and branch manager refused to cash the check because he didn’t have an account there and he couldn’t give them a thumbprint to confirm his identity.

The kicker is they wouldn’t accept his reason for not providing the thumbprint: He doesn't have any thumbs, or arms for that matter, because of a birth defect.

Even when he offered two forms of photo identification, the teller wouldn’t budge. He was told company policy required the thumbprint. If he wanted to cash the check, either his wife could come in to cash the check or he could open an account.

To open the account he’d need the same two forms of ID that weren’t good enough to cash the check.

“I said, ‘Neither’s really acceptable right now, so could I speak with the branch manager?’ ” Valdez told Holt. “The branch manager came and reiterated the same thing to me.”

Valdez found that stance both puzzling and potentially actionable under federal law.

“I have cashed checks with other banks with similar policies without a problem,” he told Holt. “The branch manager would come out, look at two forms of photo ID, initial the check and I’d go on my way.”

Valdez, who functions with two prosthetic arms, is not the sort to complain about his disability. In his entire life, he said, he’d never found it necessary to speak up about being discriminated against. But this time, the bank went too far, he said.

Image: Man with no arms.
TODAY
Steve Valdez tells TODAY's Lester Holt that he went public with his complaints out of principle.
“This is the first time that I have ever gone public with anything related to this,” Valdez told Holt. “I’ve either accommodated myself or I’ve been accommodated throughout my whole life with things like this. But when it hits you in the face like this and you have no other alternative, you start thinking you’re not the only person in this country who cannot give a thumbprint. There’s a serious problem here, a violation of federal law.”

Once Valdez went public, Bank of America went into damage control mode, apologizing to Valdez. The bank conceded the branch manager should have accommodated him and issued a statement that said, “This is an isolated occurrence and does not represent the bank’s policies for accommodating customers or non-account holders with disabilities. We have ensured those policies have been underscored with all our associates across the bank.”

Valdez said that the bank’s statement still doesn’t say what its specific policies are.

“Bank of America will not produce those policies and tell me exactly what they are,” Valdez said. “They just say it’s the discretion of the bank manager or whatever. That is not in accordance with federal law. You have to have alternative policies.”

Valdez’s wife, Lori, who joined him on TODAY, said she was disturbed by the attitude of the branch manager when she called to try to resolve the issue. After being rejected, her husband called to tell her what happened. She called the bank branch.

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“The branch manager got on the phone with me,” Lori Valdez said. “I told her my husband had been there. She said, ‘Yes, I’m the one that he spoke with.’ I said, ‘He had two forms of ID.’ She said, ‘He could bring you in.’ I said, ‘I’m working, that’s not an option.’ Or he could open an account. I said, ‘Wouldn’t he need identification to open an account with you?’ She said, ‘Well, yes, but then we’d get to know him.’ ”

During the phone conversation, Lori Valdez said, “the branch manager was very flippant. I said to her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself and embarrassed.’ She said, ‘I’m neither.’ I knew then there was a real problem because that’s a really flippant kind of a comment.”

In the end, Steve Valdez took his wife’s check and deposited it in his own account at his bank. After a two-day hold, it went through with no problem.

He also asked his wife to do him a favor. Said Lori Valdez, “He called me and said, ‘Don’t ever send me to your bank ever again.’ ”

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