Rent-A-Center Settles Discrimination Suit

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Robert Goodrich of the Post-Dispatch

Company agrees to pay $47 million to women who were victims of bias
A $47 million cash settlement was announced here Thursday in a national sex-discrimination suit against Rent-A-Center.

The company also agreed to change its hiring, firing and promotions policies. Lawyers who brought the suit said it may benefit more than 5,000 women across the country.

Rent-A-Center, based in Plano, Texas, has 2,294 stores nationwide, including about two dozen in the St. Louis area. It is a rent-to-own company that offers furniture, appliances, electronics and computers.

The settlement is subject to approval by U.S. District Judge David Herndon in East St. Louis, but a detailed agreement has been signed by both sides.

Herndon also must determine what attorney fees and costs will be paid out of the settlement, and how the balance will be distributed to victims of bias.

The settlement also closes out a parallel class-action suit pending in federal court in Memphis.

The suit was brought here in 2000 by St. Louis lawyers Jerome Schlichter and Mary Anne Sedey and their firms. They were joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among the allegations in the suit were that the company eliminated jobs that had been held by women, harassed and unfairly disciplined and demoted female employees, discouraged women from applying for jobs and rejected them when they did.

Claudine Wilfong, a single parent in St. Peters, was one of the chief plaintiffs. She was joined by 13 other women in the St. Louis area who claim that they had been targets of discrimination.

"This is great!" Wilfong said Thursday night. "I think they did the right thing. I'm glad it's over. Now, everybody can get on with their lives."

Wilfong worked for Rent-A-Center for 11 years. She was a manager of a store in Arnold in 1998 when she became frustrated by changes in the company's policies. She said the Human Resources Department was eliminated, leaving no one to turn to with complaints. She said women were asked to lift furniture and appliances weighing up to 75 pounds and female employees were told to deliver large items on trucks by themselves when men had helpers.

Wilfong said she resigned when she was told to fire a female employee who was doing a good job. She said she was undecided about returning to her old job.

In November, Rent-A-Center announced it had reached a $12.25 million settlement in federal court in Kansas City on the same issue. But Schlichter said he and the lawyers here successfully opposed that settlement as inadequate.

Rent-A-Center officials could not be reached for comment. In a statement in November on the Kansas City Settlement, company president Mitchell E. Fadell said: "While our track record in providing a nondiscriminatory workplace is strong, we believe the proposed settlement is in the best interest of Rent-A-Center given the costs and uncertainty of litigation."

EEOC lawyer Donna L. Harper said the settlement "will move Rent-A-Center closer to the goal of providing true equality of opportunity for women."

Besides the cash settlement, Rent-A-Center agreed to, among other things:

  • Fill 10 percent of job vacancies in the next 15 months with women who were fired or whose applications were rejected because of gender.

  • Set up and publicize a toll-free number for workers and applicants to report discrimination.

  • Provide quarterly reports for four years on new employment policies and training programs, sex-discrimination complaints and statistics by gender on hiring, promotion and firing.

  • Establish a human resources department headed by a vice president reporting directly to the company chief executive.

  • Seek qualified women to serve on its board of directors, currently all male.

  • Notify all women job applicants, in writing, who were rejected since August 2000, of the settlement and encourage them to respond if they want to work for the company.

Donald E. Franklin of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.