Where the Boys Are

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Wilfong contacted Mary Anne Sedey and Jon A. Ray, prominent St. Louis employment-discrimination lawyers. Wilfong brought with her the names of eight other women who had worked for Rent-A-Center. Each told a tale of discrimination or harassment that started after Talley acquired the company. Suspicious that there was more at work than just one discriminatory store manager or market manager, Sedey and Ray began calling other women around the country. As soon as the word "discrimination" was mentioned, the lawyers say, the women couldn't wait to talk about Rent-A-Center.

But before a sex discrimination lawsuit could be filed, federal law required the women to first go to the EEOC. Donna Harper, supervisory attorney at the EEOC's St. Louis office, was working as the intake attorney when the women filed complaints against Rent-A-Center. Harper searched the EEOC's national database and turned up 25 to 30 additional open charges around the country and consolidated the cases in the St. Louis office.

Harper says her office found that not only did the new owners of Rent-A-Center discharge women as a group, the company was throwing up roadblocks to keep women from being hired. Three managers admitted to the federal agency that they had destroyed women's employment applications, a violation of federal regulations. The EEOC found that there was "reasonable cause" to believe Rent-A-Center "discriminated against women."

In August 2000, Wilfong and 18 other women filed their lawsuit against Rent-A-Center in the federal court in East St. Louis. In May 2001, the EEOC joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff, arguing that the case was "of general public importance."

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.

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.

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Geri L. Dreiling