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California's Wet Seal hit by race discrimination lawsuit

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. paid $40 million several years ago to settle with Asian, Hispanic and African-American workers who accused the retailer of race discrimination. The settlement should have sent a strong message to all retail companies and other companies in California and throughout the entire U.S. that race bias will not be tolerated in the workplace.

However, former employees of California-based Wet Seal Inc. claim racial discrimination amongst retailers is still occurring and harming many workers. A federal lawsuit was filed against the women's clothing retailer last week, alleging that the company purposely and routinely discriminated against African-American managers. The plaintiffs claimed high-level store executives felt African-American women did not reflect the store's "brand image" the retailer had wanted to portray.

The complaint says Wet Seal's discrimination policy was evident from 2008. Court documents stated a Wet Seal senior vice president issued an email calling for more diversity. Too many African Americans were apparently on staff. One of three plaintiffs was fired from Wet Seal the same day the email was circulated, two months after the woman had been promoted.

The African-American manager's replacement was white, reportedly fitting the company executive's desire to have a blond-haired, blue-eyed manager. The plaintiff's job replacement was less experienced but better paid than the African-American store manager, the lawsuit states. Back pay is amongst the damages sought in the lawsuit, which also include recovery of benefits and punitive damages.

The three former Wet Seal employees who filed the lawsuit are requesting that the complaint be moved to class-action status.

A class-action lawsuit representing 1 million women against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. last year was decertified by the U.S. Supreme Court. The suit was thrown out because complaints focused on reported actions by separate store employees rather than ones sanctioned by Wal-Mart as a whole. The Wet Seal litigation could succeed if workers show that discrimination was the policy of the entire company.

Source: Reuters, "UPDATE 2-Wet Seal sued by ex-managers for alleged racial bias," Jonathan Stempel, July 12, 2012