In 2009, Nicole Cogdell, a manager at the Wet Seal Store in King of Prussia, and her two associates were getting ready for a standard visit from senior vice president of store operations Barbara Bachman. Upon her arrival, Cogdell greeted Bachman with a smile, but the reception she received wasn’t what she expected.
“After I greeted her, I later overheard her say to the district manager, ‘I was expecting someone with blond hair and blue eyes.’ She also said that I was not the brand image that Wet Seal wanted to project and the regional manager must have been out of her mind to promote an African American as store manager for the King of Prussia store.”
“My two associates at the store also overheard the comments against me. I was later terminated from my position and the reason I was told by my district manager was because I was African-American. I was completely embarrassed and humiliated. I was just shocked that someone would say something like that, especially considering this was the first time I ever met her. I never dealt with race discrimination at any of my jobs prior to this situation. I was just overall devasted.”
Cogdell’s experience prompted her to file a race discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Wet Seal Inc., a retailer of women’s clothing. The company operates 470 Wet Seal and 83 Arden B stores in 47 states and Puerto Rico. The lawsuit was filed on July 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The company is headquartered in Foothill Ranch, Calif.
In the lawsuit, Cogdell claims that she was given a termination notice from her role as a store manager because she is Black. Cogdell formerly worked at the Wet Seal in Springfield and King of Prussia. Cogdell claims she quit working at Wet Seal because the company refused to address its racially discriminatory policies. Cogdell is one of three former employees that have filed a federal race discrimination lawsuit against Wet Seal Inc.
“The company later offered me a new job opportunity,” she said. “That job consisted of a demotion from my previous position, less pay and going back to the Springfield store. I declined the offer because the company refused to address their policies. I have always been a professional in the workplace, and I believe you should be judged by your performance and not the color of your skin.”
The lawsuit claims Wet Seal targeted Black store managers since 2008 because they do not present the brand image the retailer wants to portray. The suit also claims Wet Seal had a policy of denying equal pay and promotion opportunities and separate termination policies for Blacks in stores nationwide. Company executives adopted the policy, the suit alleges, citing various emails from those company execs.
“I also received an email that was sent out to various people within the company including executives and general managers,” Cogdell said. “The email was written from Barbara Bachman. In the email, she states how African Americans are dominating (the company) and how this is a huge issue. It was then that I decided I needed to do something.”
The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Delaware County residents Myriam Saint-Hilaire, who previously worked at the King of Prussia location, and Kai Hawkins, who formerly worked at Wet Seal locations in California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In the lawsuit, Hawkins claims her district manager was ordered by senior management to hire more white employees or be terminated. Saint-Hilaire claims her district manager was pressured to get rid of her and other Black employees. All plaintiffs seek back pay, general damages and punitive damages, according to the suit.
“Filing the lawsuit was a hard decision for me to make, but I don’t want other employees who are still working at Wet Seal or other stores to go through what I went through,” Cogdell said. “It’s not okay to be treated this way and it’s unacceptable. No one should be discriminated against. I hope our actions will encourage others to speak out about race discrimination and prompt change for the future.”
Cogdell, Saint-Hilaire and Hawkins are the only named plaintiffs, but the class-action suit is estimated to include hundreds of current and former Wet Seal employees, according to a release issued by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs. The law firms of Gallagher, Schoenfeld, Surkin, Chupein and DeMis in Media, Pa., and Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker and Jackson in Oakland, Calif., are also representing the plaintiffs.
“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,” said Brad Seligman, lead counsel for the class. “There is nothing subtle here. The evidence supporting this case is a powerful reminder that the fight against discrimination in the workplace is far from over. No one should be fired because of their skin color.”
Wet Seal has released a statement denying the accusations.
“Wet Seal is an equal opportunity employer with a very diverse workforce and customer base,” the statement read. “We deny any and all allegations of race discrimination and will vigorously defend this matter.”