By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Published: December 3, 2012
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in a statement released Monday that Wet Seal, a nationwide apparel retailer for young women, illegally discriminated against a former store manager after one of the company’s executives complained about too many black employees at the manager’s store in Pennsylvania.
Citing unusually blatant evidence of racial discrimination, the director of the commission’s Philadelphia office noted in a “determination” released Monday that Wet Seal’s “corporate managers have openly stated they wanted employees who had the ‘Armani look, were white, had blue eyes, thin and blond in order to be profitable.’ ”
The federal agency found that Wet Seal terminated Nicole Cogdell, the African-American former manager of its store in King of Prussia, Pa., in 2009, the day after the retailer’s senior vice president for store operations had inspected that store and several others in the area and sent an e-mail saying, “African Americans dominate — huge issue.”
The commission said it would seek “a just resolution of this matter” through negotiations.
It issued its determination after Ms. Cogdell had filed a complaint with the agency and after she and two other black former Wet Seal managers filed a federal race discrimination lawsuit against the company last July.
Nicole Cogdell, right, a former manager at Wet Seal who accused the retailer of racial bias, and her lawyer Nancy DeMis. (Laura Pedrick for The New York Times)
Wet Seal insisted that Ms. Cogdell had resigned voluntarily and that it therefore had taken no adverse employment action against her. But the commission found that the senior vice president’s e-mail, which Ms. Cogdell said she had seen, and the company’s sudden laying off of numerous African-Americans at several stores in Pennsylvania had created a hostile work atmosphere that had forced her to quit. The agency called this tantamount to a discharge.
The commission said that before Ms. Cogdell was forced out, she had received high ratings in running the King of Prussia store, which was ranked No. 8 among Wet Seal’s more than 500 stores. Her regional manager and district manager had said she had “great energy” and “strong ability” to hold other managers and subordinates accountable in fulfilling their responsibilities.
In a statement, Wet Seal said that a month ago, it began voluntarily collaborating with the commission on an “extensive program designed to continue to promote diversity” and protect against discrimination. The company, which is based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., said the agency had advised it that all other E.E.O.C. cases brought against Wet Seal had been closed.
Wet Seal added that its new leadership team “had been unequivocally vocal about its commitment to equal employment opportunity in all employment practices, as well as a work environment that is free from unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation.”
In a statement released Monday by her lawyers, Ms. Cogdell said: “It is intolerable for any company — let alone a major company with hundreds of outlets — to blatantly discriminate against its African-American employees. But I wasn’t the only victim of Wet Seal’s discrimination, and I will not stop fighting for justice for all the victims.”
Ms. Cogdell’s lawyers, Brad Seligman and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., are seeking class-action status for her suit against Wet Seal, saying that more than 20 current and former employees had filed bias charges with the E.E.O.C.
The agency’s district director for Philadelphia, Spencer H. Lewis Jr., said Wet Seal’s senior vice president for store operations, Barbara Bachman, who he said had a major role in pushing out Ms. Cogdell, resigned voluntarily in 2011. The E.E.O.C. declined to comment further.