Employee at Winston-Salem Dollar General fired after encounter with believed shoplifter

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- A Winston-Salem woman claimed she was fired by Dollar General after her encounter with a shoplifter.

On July 13, Lillian Billings claimed to have seen Cedric McIlwain, 36, walk into the store on Patterson Avenue. She was the manager at the time of the incident and claimed to have followed company policy at the time.

“He put his cap down, and that gave me a sign of what he was fixin’ to do,” Billings said.

She told FOX8 that she began to observe McIlwain placing items into a plastic bag that he then put on the ground. She then stated that she went to bring that bag to the front of the store.

“He had come up behind me and said he would pay for it. I told him he wasn’t. That’s when I realized that he had a bottle of shampoo down his pants. I told him to leave the store," Billings said.

She states that McIlwain began to go back into the store to try and get into a beer cooler. At that point, he came back to the front of the store and proceeded behind the counter.

Digital store cameras captured McIlwain storming to a glass cigarette case at the front of the building. He then began to shake it while trying to pry open the glass.

In the video, Lillian is seen on the store phone and taking photos of McIlwain.

She steps away before going toward the glass case. She is seen trying to step between him and the case.

“It was tilting over, and I reached out to stop it for falling and wrecking his, or mine, or my other employee’s life,” Billings said.

She then steps back before McIlwain goes toward another register. He turns to grab Lillian’s hair, pushes her back and then runs out of the store.

At this point, the video stops. Billings explained that she only ran as far as the door and did not chase McIlwain into the street.

He was arrested shortly after the incident and charged.

Two weeks later Lillian was fired by Dollar General representatives. When she applied for unemployment benefits, the company said she was disqualified.

In legal documents, the company argues that she violated company policy by physically engaging the suspected shoplifter.

Documents detail that the company believes she engaged McIlwain which led to his aggressive actions.

In line with company policy, she was supposed to ask him to pay for the items. If they did not comply, then the police were to be contacted but no physical actions were to be taken.

Documents also show that the company believes she chased McIlwain in the parking lot.

When asked about this, Billings said she did not violate those policies.

Billings said she did try to get the items back but did not engage the suspect until she began to fear for the safety of others. She also claimed that she did not chase him into the parking lot.

On Nov. 5, an appeals hearing was held regarding her push to file for unemployment benefits.

The following are key excerpts from those documents.

Finding of fact:

  • Claimant was discharged from this job for allegedly failing to follow procedure when confronting a shoplifter.
  • The employer is a retail store. The employer has a policy that if one suspects a customer of shoplifting, one should observe the individual. If one sees the customer conceal an item, keep the individual in view. Allow the individual to pass all points of sale. Then the Store manager should ask the individual to pay for the concealed item. If he will not, he should be allowed to leave and the employee can call police. An employee should not follow the customer form the store. The employer’s policies do not specify a disciplinary course of action if these steps are not followed.
  • On July 13, 2019, the claimant observed a customer whose behavior appeared suspicious. He had placed items in a tote and she brought the bag to the register. When the customer approached, he was belligerent and cursing. The claimant believed he was drunk. He stated he had planned to pay for the items. After he attempted to break into a beer cooler, the claimant told him to leave. The customer came behind the register and began pulling on the cigarette display to break into it. The claimant grabbed the display, because she feared it would fall. She called police and took a picture of the individual.
  • The man went to a register and the claimant thought he was going to grab it. He then grabbed the claimant by the head and hair . . . He grabbed the company telephone. The claimant picked up the telephone off the floor after he dropped it and followed him to the door. The claimant watched from the door until he was out of sight.
  • When District Manager Kyle Watkins viewed video surveillance, he believed that the claimant initiated contact with the individual by grabbing him at the cigarette display. Mr. Watkins also believed that she exited the store and followed the individual into the parking lot.
  • The claimant was later notified that her employment was terminated. The decision was based on the employer’s conclusion that the claimant had made physical contact with the perpetrator and followed him out of the store. These were deemed to be dangerous actions that escalated the risks of the situation.
  • The individual has since been found guilty of criminals charges related to the incident, including assault on a female.

Reasoning:

The employer has the responsibility to show that the claimant was discharged for misconduct within the meaning of the law. It is concluded from the competent evidence in the records that the claimant was discharged for allegedly making physical contact with an individual who was pulling on a cigarette display and for following him out of the store, in violation of the employer’s policies. The employer did not present documentation of this policy or documentation as to the disciplinary action for violation such policy. The claimant denied making physical contact and following the individual out of the store. The claiming provided first-hand testimony. The employer’s testified to what was observed on video surveillance. The employer did not preset the best evidence of the video surveillance itself. As a result, the claimant’s testimony is controlling. The employer did not carry the burden of proving misconduct. Therefore the claimant was not discharged for misconduct connected with the work.

Decision: The adjudicator’s determination is reversed. Claiming is not disqualified for unemployment benefits.

Ten days after this, an attorney for Dollar General responded to Billings' legal team and state, saying:

“We have reviewed your letter, and investigated Ms. Billings’ allegations, and have found no evidence of wrongdoing by Dollar General. Dollar General denies Ms. Billings’ claims of wrongful discharged which were unable to be substantiated after a thorough investigation by Dollar General. In fact, the investigation revealed that Ms. Billings was terminated for a legitimate reason when she violated Dollar General policy and procedures as it concerns suspected shoplifters...we are closing our investigation...Please note that Ms. Billings is subject to an arbitration agreement with Dollar General..."

Billings' legal team said they plan to continue to pursue legal matters.

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