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Former Haggen employee accuses grocer of misleading customers on prices

Former Haggen employee accuses grocer of misleading customers on prices
Haggen, a Pacific Northwest chain, took over 146 Vons, Pavilions, Albertsons and Safeway stores on the West Coast this year, including 83 in California. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A former Haggen employee is suing the supermarket chain for allegedly retaliating against her for reporting in-store price discrepancies.

Debra Sukiasian, a pricing specialist, said she was discriminated against and forced to retire after she reported a mismatch between prices on the shelf and at the cash registers at the Haggen store where she worked in Carpinteria, Calif., according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in state court in Santa Barbara County.

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It's yet another lawsuit in Haggen's troubled expansion. Haggen, a Pacific Northwest chain, bought 146 grocery stores from Albertsons and Safeway after the Federal Trade Commission forced them to be sold as part of a merger. The stores, which include 83 in California, were converted earlier this year.

This week, Haggen filed suit against Albertsons for allegedly sabotaging its store takeovers (Albertsons said the suit was "completely without merit"). Albertsons filed suit against Haggen earlier this summer claiming that Haggen failed to pay millions of dollars for inventory it took over.

In the latest lawsuit, Sukiasian said her problems started in June, when the Vons store where she was originally employed was converted to the Haggen brand.

Once the Carpinteria store was changed to Haggen, Sukiasian said many items that were tagged with one price on the shelves ended up scanned as higher prices at the register, the lawsuit said.

Sukiasian brought up the problem with a Haggen employee responsible for pricing at several Haggen stores, the lawsuit said. She believed that kind of overcharging violated both state and federal laws banning false advertising as well as regulations governing weights and measures, according to the suit.

After several weeks passed with no response, Sukiasian emailed Bill Shaner, the Haggen executive responsible for California, Nevada and Arizona operations, and told him about the problem, according to the complaint.

Shortly afterward, Sukiasian said she was "upbraided" by a district manager and a Haggen executive for emailing Shaner, the lawsuit alleges. That executive also told a manager at the Carpinteria store to find a way to fire her, the suit said.

Sakiasian, who was eligible for retirement but wanted to work for another few years, ultimately retired in September instead of risking a termination, the lawsuit said.

"She was constructively discharged when she was made to choose between retiring and being terminated," the lawsuit said. Haggen "acted with oppression, fraud, malice."

The lawsuit accuses Haggen of violating California laws banning retaliation against employees who report and seek to correct statutes designed to protect the public from deceptive business practices. Sukiasian is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Haggen said it "has not been made  aware of this lawsuit and, as such, cannot comment."

The Bellingham, Wash., company has had a tough time breaking into its new markets.

Shoppers have complained that Haggen's stores charge higher prices for the same products than the supermarkets they replaced.

When its first California stores opened in March, about 1,000 items -- or about 2.5% of a store's products -- were erroneously overpriced at 10 supermarkets in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. A smaller number of goods were incorrectly underpriced.

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The company has recently laid off employees and cut worker hours in the face of what it called "unprecedented" competition.

Follow Shan Li on Twitter @ByShanLi

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