Where the Boys Are

It's a man's world at Plano-based Rent-A-Center, a lawsuit alleges

Rent-A-Center hired a team of four law firms, led by Dallas-based Winstead, Sechrist & Minick, to defend the case. Asked about the lawsuit and the claims made by the women, Rent-A-Center executives referred questions to the company's outside public relations firm, which issued a statement describing allegations of harassment and discrimination as untrue:

"There has been no finding in any court of law that any of these allegations are true. In many cases, they are nothing more than third-party recollections of something that somebody thought that they might have overheard." In the statement, Rent-A-Center says the company is committed to a "discrimination-free workplace and to assuring equal opportunity for all of its employees."

Talley, who retired from the company October 8 and has since sold his shares in it for about $60 million, did not return phone calls. In a deposition, Talley denied saying that women didn't belong in the business and stressed that he thinks that some of Rent-A-Center's female managers are "the best we have." As for the other top execs, the spokesperson said that the company's blanket denial of wrongdoing also applied to them.

Roy Tompkins

Donna Harper, supervising attorney with the EEOC. The agency issued a determination finding reasonable cause to believe Rent-A-Center discriminated against women.
Jennifer Silverberg
Donna Harper, supervising attorney with the EEOC. The agency issued a determination finding reasonable cause to believe Rent-A-Center discriminated against women.

Once Rent-A-Center filed its response to the East St. Louis lawsuit, the case took some odd procedural twists.

When the women's attorneys sent discovery requests for documents to Rent-A-Center, the company refused to answer.

Then the women's attorneys discovered that computer tapes containing seven years' worth of monthly payroll information had been destroyed. Moreover, several monthly "promotable" lists identifying individuals eligible for promotion couldn't be found.

What information the company finally provided under court order was analyzed by outside experts hired by the plaintiffs' lawyers. Dr. David Peterson, a statistician, found that a disproportionate number of women, compared with men, left the company after Talley took over.

Dr. James Misner, an expert on human motion, examined the 75-pound lifting rule and concluded it wasn't a genuine requirement because Rent-A-Center didn't test the applicants on it; its real effect, he said, was to discourage women from applying.

Armed with their sworn statements and expert reports, the women in the East St. Louis case were set to file their motion to have their case certified as a class action on the court's deadline date of November 1. But on October 31, Rent-A-Center's lawyers announced a $12.25 million settlement of a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit in Kansas City.

There wasn't even a class action pending against Rent-A-Center in Kansas City at the time, and yet, if a federal judge approves the settlement there, it will shut down the East St. Louis case.

The Kansas City end run grew out of two individual discrimination suits, filed by Tracy Levings and Margaret Bunch. Although each woman initially asked for a class certification, Rent-A-Center fought the request, and U.S. District Court Judge Ortrie Smith in Kansas City ordered the two sides into arbitration--a blow to the women because arbitration awards are typically smaller than those set forth by juries.

But one day before the Wilfong class-certification motion was supposed to be filed in East St. Louis, the plaintiffs' Kansas City lawyers and Rent-A-Center's lawyers marched into federal court together and asked Smith to certify the two women's suits as a class and approve a $12.25 million settlement that would apply to 4,800 women, including Claudine Wilfong and most of the women covered by her case. Smith agreed and entered a conditional approval of the settlement. A final hearing on the settlement proposal was set for March 6.

Under the terms of the Kansas City settlement, women could expect to receive anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 each, depending on how long they worked for the company. Rent-A-Center is not required to admit any wrongdoing, and the Kansas City plaintiffs' lawyers could earn fees totaling as much as $2.6 million. The Kansas City settlement also provided an escape hatch for Rent-A-Center: If more than 92 women opted out of the settlement, the company could walk away from the deal.

As soon as the EEOC and the lawyers in the East St. Louis case found out about the settlement, they tried to intervene. The judge initially denied their requests.

Bunch and Levings, the Kansas City plaintiffs, refused to be interviewed for this story, citing instructions from their lawyers; the lawyers did not return repeated calls.

Back in federal court in East St. Louis, Rent-A-Center's lawyers asked U.S. District Judge David R. Herndon to delay ruling on the plaintiffs' motion for class certification until March 6, the final approval-hearing date scheduled in Kansas City, but Herndon refused to stop his case; on December 27, he granted Wilfong and the other women's request, in effect creating a second, competing class of Rent-A-Center women.

Rent-A-Center sent a memo to its employees informing them of the Kansas City settlement and urged female employees to participate. On the other side, the EEOC and the lawyers in the East St. Louis case are fighting back, asking the women to opt out of the Kansas City settlement.

When Wilfong found out about the Kansas City shuffle, she wasn't surprised.

"I just felt like they were trying to get one over on the women again," Wilfong says. "They're looking for any way to get rid of us." The amount the company wants to pay would just be "a slap on their hands, and it was really nothing compared to what they did and how many women's jobs are gone."

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