Staff at a Halifax-area Sobeys racially discriminated against a woman by falsely accusing her of being a shoplifter, an independent human rights board of inquiry ruled on Friday.

Andrella David went for ice cream at the Tantallon Sobeys in May 2009. While waiting in line, a staff member named Jennie Barnhill approached her and publicly accused her of being a "known shoplifter in the store."

In front of other customers, the Sobeys employee said they had video footage of David stealing on previous occasions. Barnhill said they were watching David and would press charges if it happened again. The employee also accused her of robbing a nearby liquor store, another unsubstantiated claim.

'If you think that's me, you must think all black people look alike.' - Andrella David

"There was no indication that Ms. David had attempted to shoplift," board of inquiry chairwoman Marion Hill says in the ruling, which validates the complaint to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

David asked the Sobeys employee to show her the footage so she could prove it was different person. 

"If you think that's me, you must think all black people look alike," David told Barnhill upon screening the poor quality footage. 

David then went to the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation outlet and spoke to staff there, who said she was not the person who had shoplifted from their store. She then left the area "upset and crying."

'I know what I did was wrong' 

Hill said Barnhill discriminated against David because David is black, and because of her "perceived income" by suggesting the thefts occurred on "cheque day."

David had taken her complaint to the Sobeys head office, the ruling says, but they accepted the accusations. The board of inquiry viewed the video and concluded it was of too poor quality to identify anyone.

Hill said colour and race were important factors in the decision to confront David. She also found that "racial profiling" was a factor in the treatment of David.

"The most distinguishing feature that could be positively identified from the pictures and the video evidence was the fact that the alleged shoplifter was a black woman with dark hair," she said. 

Hill accepted the argument that shoplifting is a concern for Sobeys, resulting in serious financial loss.

"However, the respondent's continuous identification of the complainant as a known shoplifter is unjustified."

Barnhill has admitted she was wrong.

"I know what I did was wrong. I know the way I approached her was inappropriate and I knew that from the moment that I did it," she said. "Looking back, obviously I would never have handled it that way again because that approach was inappropriate."

Hill is independent of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, which represents the public interest at the board of inquiry. 

Hill reserved decision on remedy, and arguments on that question will be heard Oct. 27 and 28.