Three former managers at Wet Seal Inc., the Orange County teen apparel chain, have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the company alleging a high-level policy of bias against its African American workers.
Filed in federal court in Santa Ana, the lawsuit accuses the struggling clothier, which operates both Wet Seal and Arden B. stores catering to young women, of adopting a policy of firing and denying promotions and pay to its black employees in favor of hiring white workers who better fit the company’s “brand image.”
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of more than 250 management-level employees at Wet Seal. Collectively, the Foothill Ranch retailer has more than 550 stores, including 470 Wet Seal locations and 83 Arden B. shops.
The company had no comment Thursday. Repeated calls to Chief Executive Susan McGalla and other executives for their comments were not returned. Wet Seal shares fell 5 cents, or 1.6%, to $3.15.
As evidence that discrimination was prevalent at “the highest levels,” the suit included a 2009 email sent by Barbara Bachman, then senior vice president of store operations, to underlings pointing out the dominance of African American workers as a “huge issue.” Bachman could not be reached for her version of events.
One of the plaintiffs, Nicole Cogdell, who worked as a manager of a Wet Seal store in King of Prussia, Pa., said in the lawsuit she was fired in March 2009 after Bachman visited the store the previous month. Cogdell, who is African American, said she and two salesclerks overheard Bachman saying that the manager should have “blond hair and blue eyes.” Bachman later threatened to fire the Philadelphia district manager unless Cogdell was fired, the suit alleges.
“I was shocked. I was humiliated. I was even embarrassed someone could say something like that and not look at the end results, which was the sales and customer service,” Cogdell said in an interview.
Another plaintiff, Kai Hawkins, managed a Wet Seal in Cherry Hill, N.J., and was told to “diversify” the staff by hiring non-black workers; she was given a 30-day deadline and threatened with termination unless she complied, the suit alleges.
“African-American employees were terminated despite doing a good job and without any explanation,” Hawkins said in the suit.
In March 2009, hiring decisions were taken out of Hawkins’ hands to ensure that new workers at her store were white, the suit alleges. She was fired a year later.
Brad Seligman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview that the company’s policy of discrimination was explicitly spelled out in emails and comments from high-ranking executives.
“There are statements and directions from the highest executives, including the president and senior VP, that basically say they had too many African American store managers and it’s a big issue,” Seligman said.
Seligman served as the lead attorney in an earlier lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc.on behalf of female workers. The Supreme Court blocked that case, which sought class-action status for more than 1.5 million current and former employees, because it lacked evidence proving a companywide policy.
“Each plaintiff has had very explicit bias thrown in their face,” he said about the former Wet Seal managers. “It’s a strange case to see in the 21st century with a publicly traded company headquartered in California.”