(New York, NY)  A national class action lawsuit filed today charges that top executives at Wet Seal directed senior managers to get rid of African American store management employees for the sake of its “brand image,” and to hire more white employees.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Orange County, California, alleges that since 2008, the nationwide women’s clothing store chain targeted African-American store managers because they do not fit the “brand image” it sought to project. This policy was adopted and implemented by the highest corporate officials, including the company CEO and Senior Vice President and Vice President of Store Operations. In March 2009, for example, after visiting several stores the Senior Vice President wrote an email to the Vice President of Store Operations and a district manager with her store visit notes. Under the heading, “Global Issues,” she wrote, “Store Teams need diversity — African American dominate — huge issue.” Another senior executive ordered a district manager to “clean the entire store out” after observing numerous African-American employees working there.

The plaintiffs are represented by NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF), as well as two law firms: Oakland, California’s Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson, P.C. and Media, Pennsylvania’s Gallagher, Schoenfeld, Surkin, Chupein & DeMis, P.C.

Two former store managers and a former assistant manager of Wet Seal are the named plaintiffs in the case.  The complaint alleges that Wet Seal had a policy of denying equal pay and promotion opportunities and terminating African-American store management employees across the country. Cogdell et al. v. The Wet Seal, Inc. (Case No. SACV 12-01138 AG). The complaint seeks damages for the named plaintiffs and the class. The class is estimated to include several hundred current and former Wet Seal store Assistant Managers, Co-Managers and Store Managers.

Wet Seal, headquartered in Foothill Ranch, California, has over 7000 employees at its 550 Wet Seal and Arden B. stores.

Plaintiff Nicole Cogdell, a former store manager of the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania store, was given a termination notice after the Senior Vice President visited her store and discovered Ms. Cogdell was African-American. Plaintiff Kai Hawkins, a former manager of the Cherry Hill, New Jersey store, was told by her district manager that senior management had ordered her to hire more white employees or be terminated. Plaintiff Myriam Saint-Hilaire, a former assistant manager at the King of Prussia store, was told by her District Manager that she was under intense pressure to get rid of Ms. Saint-Hilaire and other African-American employees. She was fired shortly before the “African American . . . huge issue” email was sent out.

Ms. Cogdell, who quit after Wet Seal refused to address its racially discriminatory policies, said, “I couldn’t work for a company that not only tolerated, but required discrimination.”

“This case is remarkable in part because the discriminatory policies are documented by former managers, but also in an email from the Senior Vice President. There is nothing subtle here,” says Brad Seligman, lead counsel for the class.  Pennsylvania attorney Nancy DeMis, who is co-counsel on the case, characterized the email regarding African-American employees as “stunning.” 

“The evidence supporting this case is a powerful reminder that the fight against discrimination in the workplace is far from over,” observes Debo P. Adegbile, Acting Director-Counsel of LDF. “No one should be fired because of their skin color.”

Over 20 charges of discrimination have been filed by current and former Wet Seal employees with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Wet Seal, including a charge filed by a former Regional Director alleging she was fired for promoting an African-American to manage a high-profile store.