Wet Seal settles national class action discrimination case started by Pa. plaintiffs for $7.5 million

By Jon Campisi | May 10, 2013

Clothing retailer Wet Seal has agreed to settle a national class action lawsuit initiated by

Clothing retailer Wet Seal has agreed to settle a national class action lawsuit initiated by

four African American women, three of whom reside in suburban Philadelphia, which alleged the company had a policy of denying equal pay and promotional opportunities to black employees.

The company and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund jointly announced the $7.5 million settlement on May 9.

As part of the settlement, Wet Seal’s new CEO and Board of directors have agreed to make changes to address the discrimination charges that were contained within the complaint, a civil action that was started by three women from Delaware County, Pa., which neighbors Philadelphia.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Nicole Cogdell, learned she was being terminated after a former company senior vice president visited the store Cogdell managed in King of Prussia, Pa., and learned that the plaintiff was black, the complaint had alleged.

In December, according to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that former Wet Seal executives had indeed racially discriminated against Cogdell, whose co-plaintiffs in the suit included fellow Delaware County residents Kai Hawkins and Myriam Saint-Hilaire.

Hawkins is an African American woman who formerly worked at Wet Seal locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California, while Saint-Hilaire is a black woman who worked at the company’s King of Prussia location.

The fourth named plaintiff in the complaint was Michelle Guider, an African American resident of North Carolina who worked at a Wet Seal store in her home state.

The lawsuit was eventually filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Wet Seal is headquartered in Foothill Ranch, Calif.

According to the complaint, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had found in its determination that lead plaintiff Cogdell’s charge that “corporate managers have openly stated that they wanted employees who had the ‘Armani’ look, had blue eyes, thin, and blond in order to be profitable,” was legitimate.

Evidence of the discrimination was contained within company emails and also came out of the testimony of former managers.

The lawsuit alleged that the national women’s clothing chain specifically targeted black female store managers because they didn’t fit the “brand image” the company sought to project.

The case was initiated in early January and subsequently given class certification.

In a statement released by the NAACP, whose lawyers represented the plaintiffs along with attorneys from Pennsylvania and California firms, Cogdell said, “Being targeted for termination from a job I loved because of my race was a nightmare. It was important for me to be a force for change, but I could not have done it without the support of other employees who spoke out against discrimination.

“Wet Seal has now committed to strong, fair policies because we took a stand,” she continued. “I hope these changes will create opportunities for all deserving employees, regardless of their race.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement that the settlement is a showing that Wet Seal is attempting to “right its wrongs.”

“It has agreed to address our claims challenging the treatment of black workers in its retail stores,” she said in a statement. “No one should have the cards stacked against them on their job simply because of their race.”

The plaintiffs were also represented by attorneys from Media, Pa.-based Gallagher, Schoenfeld, Surkin, Chupein & DeMis, and Oakland, Calif.-based Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson.

In a statement, Nancy DeMis, of Gallagher Schoenfeld, said the settlement brings a “sad chapter to a close.

“We are proud to have had the opportunity to represent the courageous employees of Wet Seal who stood up for what was right,” she said.

Under the settlement, Wet Seal will pay $5.58 million into a fund for current and past workers affected by the discriminatory actions; track job applications to ensure diversity in hiring; hire experts to develop updated job-related hiring, promotion, and compensation policies and practices; and engage in regular review and reporting regarding hiring, promotions and terminations of minority employees.

The settlement still requires court approval.

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