Where the Boys Are

Page 5 of 5

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."

Leigh, the former exec who had an unhappy run-in with Talley, says she doesn't know much about the Kansas City settlement, but, judging from what her lawyer tells her, she agrees: It's an attempt by Rent-A-Center to screw its ex-employees.

It took Leigh nearly a year to line up new work after she was let go. It was hard enough to understand why she'd been fired, let alone explain the situation to new employers. Even if she wins, Leigh says, she'll always be haunted by the fear that she carries "the taint that goes along with women who complain about sexual harassment."

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Geri L. Dreiling