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Wet Seal to pay $7.5M in Philly-area discrimination case

A chain of trendy girls' clothing shops  has agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle a class action discrimination case that originated when three African-American store workers from Delaware County filed a complaint last year claiming Wet Seal, Inc. fired them because they didn't fit the store's image.

Of that total amount, $5.58 million will go to current and former managers who are African-American.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Wet Seal announced the agreement  today.

"From the moment I became CEO of Wet Seal in January, I made clear that we value a diverse work force and believe that a dynamic and representative employee base allows us to best serve all of our customers," said John D. Goodman, Chief Executive Officer. "We appreciate the insights we have gained from plaintiffs' counsel and the EEOC for our best-practices initiatives. We are pleased to put this matter behind us as we continue to be committed to nondiscriminatory employment practices that create a welcome environment for people of all backgrounds."

The case began in 2009 when Nicole Cogdell, a manager at Wet Seal's King of Prussia store, pulled together her team to welcome visiting corporate staff. Cogdell said she overheard an executive vice president tell a district manager during the visit that Cogdell "wasn't the right fit for the store" and that the vice president "wanted someone with blonde hair and blue eyes."

Cogdell was fired days after the visit. She said she was told by her district manager that she was fired for being African-American.

In one email, an executive wrote: "Store Teams - need diversification African American dominate - huge issue."

Cogdell and two other African-American women filed federal suit last year in California against Wet Seal for those and other actions they believed discriminatory. Wet Seal is based in California with 550 stores and 83 Arden B. shops across the country with 7,000 full-time employees and 2,000 part-time employees.

The other plaintiffs, Kai Hawkins and Myriam Saint-Hilaire, both lived in Delaware County at the time of the suit and worked in local stores. Hawkins worked as a manager at locations at The Gallery mall in Center City and the Cherry Hill Mall. Saint-Hilaire was an assistant manager at the King of Prussia store.

The plaintiffs were represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; the Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson, law firm in California; and the law firm of Gallagher, Schoenfeld, Surkin, Chupein & DeMis in Media.

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

Today, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund hailed the settlement.

"With this settlement Wet Seal is attempting to right its wrongs," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP's legal defense 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."

Although the settlement still must be court-approved, Wet Seal has agreed to track applications to ensure diversity, expand its human resources department to be able to better investigate complaints of discrimination, post store manager and district director openings, hire experts to develop job-related hiring practices, and maintain a "Diversity and Inclusion Council."