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Wet Seal sued for race discrimination; blacks didn't fit 'brand image'

Three former employees of The Wet Seal, Inc., which owns the retailers Wet Seal and Arden B, are suing the company for employment discrimination, and they are seeking class-action status. The company operates a total of 553 stores in 47 states and Puerto Rico, and both stores are geared toward women. The lawsuit claims that it discriminates against African Americans in management positions because they don't suit the stores' "brand image."

If the plaintiffs' allegations are true, the company's "most senior executives" knew or initiated a "policy and practice" of willful discrimination against African American managers since at least 2008. For example, the complaint quotes an email sent by a senior vice president of store operations after touring 20 stores in Pennsylvania in Maryland. The email read in part, "Store teams - need diversity/African American dominate - huge issue."

The very day after that email was sent, one plaintiff was fired from her job as a manager in one of the Pennsylvania stores the vice president had visited. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff overheard the senior vice president say that she would prefer a manager with "blond hair and blue eyes." The plaintiff was replaced by a white employee with less experience and who was paid more.

The case is shockingly similar to an employment discrimination lawsuit filed against Abercrombie & Fitch in 2003, which was ultimately settled for more than $50 million, along with orders that Abercrombie take active steps to stop discriminating. In that case, Abercrombie was likewise accused of discriminating against minorities and women in visible positions because they did not accord with the brand's image. More recently, Abercrombie has been sued twice by the EEOC for discrimination against Muslim women who wished to wear head scarves in violation of the store's "look policy."

Does a "brand image" or "look policy" that favors whites over minorities violate federal anti-discrimination laws? The EEOC has taken the position that it does. In fact, ever since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, employment discrimination cases have routinely held that customers' perceived or even acknowledged preferences for non-minority workers is no excuse for discrimination, and promotion of a "brand image" seems to be essentially the same excuse.

The suit against The Wet Seal, Inc. seeks back pay and benefits, punitive damages and other remedies for the plaintiffs and to prevent future employment discrimination. If the class certification is granted, more than 250 current and former African American managers could be affected. In a statement, the company denied the allegations and promised to vigorously defend itself in court.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "Wet Seal sued by ex-managers for alleged racial bias," Jonathan Stempel, July 12, 2012

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