3 local Wet Seal managers file federal discrimination suit

Posted: July 14, 2012

After pulling her team together to spruce up Wet Seal's King of Prussia store for a visit from corporate, manager Nicole Cogdell walked up to the chain's executive vice president, intending to welcome her to the store.

Instead, Cogdell said, she overheard the executive vice president telling a district manager that Cogdell, an African-American, "wasn't the right fit for the store," Cogdell said, quoting the executive, Barbara Bachman. "She wanted someone with blonde hair and blue eyes."

Cogdell is among three African American women from Delaware County who have filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against teen apparel company West Seal. Cogdell was fired on March 3, 2009, a few days after the visit to her store.

The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in California, seeks class-action status. Wet Seal has 550 stores and 83 Arden B. shops across the country with 7,000 full-time employees and 2,000 part-time employees.

Plaintiffs Nicole Cogdell, Kai Hawkins and Myriam Saint-Hilaire, all are African-Americans living in Delaware County, Pa.

Cogdell was a former store manager at Wet Seal locations in Springfield, Pa., before being promoted to the King of Prussia store.

Kai Hawkins worked at several Wet Seal stores, including locations inside The Gallery mall in Center City Philadelphia and as a manager in the Cherry Hill Mall.

Saint-Hilaire was an assistant manager at the King of Prussia store.

All three women seek to be rehired with lost pay. They also seek benefits, and compensatory and punitive damages. They say the store - a national chain - set out to fire African-American employees because they didn't fit the retailer's "brand image."

Wet Seal, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., denies the allegations and says it will mount a vigorous defense.

"I had an excellent team and the store was literally flawless," Cogdell said. "I was shocked and humiliated. I was embarrassed for myself and my co-workers" - two African American sales associates who had joined Cogdell to welcome Bachman.

Cogdell said she was replaced by a white manager whose store Bachman had described as "embarrassing - [one of] the worst stores I have seen in a long time!"

In the complaint, the plaintiffs contend that, beginning in 2008 and through the present, Wet Seal has had a "policy and practice" of discriminating against African-American store management employees at its namesake stores as well as its Arden B shops.

The complaint references e-mails and testimony from former managers that allegedly show high-level Wet Seal executives instructing managers to fire African-American employees and "diversify" the company's work force by hiring and promoting white employees "who fit the Wet Seal brand image."

Cogdell said she was told by her district manager that she was being fired literally because she is African-American.

Bachman listed a number of marketing and visual appeal issues in the e-mail, but also mentioned: "Store Teams - need diversification African American dominate - huge issue."

In a statement on Thursday, Wet Seal touted the diversity of the company's work force.

"Wet Seal is an equal opportunity employer with a very diverse workforce and customer base," the company said.

As of June 30, the company operated 470 Wet Seal stores and 83 Arden B locations across 47 states and Puerto Rico.

To read the full lawsuit go to: http://www.philly.com/wetsealsuit

The AP contributed to this report.

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