Retailer Wet Seal Settles Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

One employee alleged corporate managers wanted employees that had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Posted: 05/09/2013 11:22 AM EDT
Retailer Wet Seal Settles Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

Popular retailer Wet Seal settled a racial discrimination lawsuit for $7.5 million after a group of African-American employees claimed the chain denied them equal pay and promotion opportunities, and instituted a practice of firing Black managers to help the store’s “brand image.”

“With this settlement Wet Seal is attempting to right its wrongs. It has agreed to address our claims challenging the treatment of black workers in its retail stores,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The fight for equality in the workplace is far from over in America. No one should have the cards stacked against them on their job simply because of their race.”

The class action lawsuit, Cogdell v. The Wet Seal, Inc., filed by the NAACP on behalf of the employees, alleged that Wet Seal executives at the highest levels instructed managers to fire Black employees and to “diversify” their work force by hiring more whites. According to the complaint, lead plaintiff Nicole Cogdell, a former Wet Seal manager, recalled that “corporate managers openly stated they wanted employees that had the ‘Armani’ look, had blue eyes, thin, and blonde in order to be profitable.”

On another occasion, a senior executive ordered a district manager of a store with a staff of primarily African-American employees to “clean the entire store out.”

In December, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that former Wet Seal executives racially discriminated against Cogdell.  

“Being targeted for termination from a job I loved because of my race was a nightmare.  It was important for me to be a force for change, but I could not have done it without the support of other employees who spoke out against discrimination,” Cogdell said.

The $7.5 million settlement includes payment of $5.58 million into a fund for current and past workers affected. In addition to the monetary penalty, Wet Seal has agreed to implement a comprehensive list of policies aimed at ensuring racial inclusion and sensitivity.

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(Photo: Jerritt Clark/Getty Images)

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