On Thursday, three former employees of Wet Seal Inc sued the U.S. retailer alleging racial discrimination against black store managers. The complaint filed in a federal court in Santa Ana, California alleged that “the most senior executives” of Wet Seal followed a “policy and practice” of discriminating against black store managers at Wet Seal stores and at Arden B stores from 2008 because they did not fit the “brand image” of the retailer.
The complaint also quotes, among others, an email sent by a senior vice president of store operations to his subordinates in March 2009 after he completed touring 20 stores in Philadelphia and Maryland: “Store teams – need diversity/African American dominate – huge issue.”
Nicole Cogdell, one of the African-American plaintiffs, claimed that she had been fired from her job at a King of Prussia, Pennsylvania store on the very day that email was sent, though it was only two months since her promotion to the post of store manager. She was replaced by a white employee who had significantly less experience, but was paid much more than she was paid. She mentioned that she had overheard the senior vice president saying she wanted a store manager with “blond hair and blue eyes.”
The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of more than 250 current and former black managers at Wet Seal. The plaintiffs want back pay and benefits, punitive damages and other remedies. The plaintiffs have not alleged individual bias but have alleged discriminatory company policy rather than holding the situation as a fault of individual managers. That mistake had led to a class of 1 million women being decertified by the Supreme Court in 2011 in a gender bias lawsuit against Wal-Mart.
Wet Seal runs about 470 stores and 83 Arden B Stores in the country.
The case is Cogdell v. Wet Seal Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 12-01138.