LAKE FOREST, CA -- A Foothill Ranch-based clothing retailer for young women is being sued by three former managers who allege the company discriminated against them because of their race.
Wet Seal, which has its corporate headquarters in Lake Forest at 26972 Burbank, sells clothing from Wet Seal and Arden B. stores. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Santa Ana, alleges that the three African-American employees were fired because they did not fit the company's "image."
"Wet Seal has a general policy and practice of discriminating against its nonwhite employees, and particularly its African-American employees," the suit alleges.
According to the suit, Barbara Bachman, a senior vice president, said that a regional manager must have “lost her mind” putting a black person in charge of a particular store. She instructed managers to “lighten up” their stores by hiring white employees and told a regional manager that there were “way too many” African-American store employees in the Maryland market, the suit alleges.
Three Delaware women—Nicole Cogdell, Kai Hawkins and Myriam Saint-Hilaire—are suing the company.
Cogdell overheard Bachman tell another manager that she wanted someone with “blond hair and blue eyes" to run the store instead of Cogdell, an African-American, according to the suit.
Hawkins, the suit also alleges, saw a 2009 email from Bachman calling the presence of African-American employees a "huge issue."
A store manager told Saint Hilaire and other employees that they “need to hire more diversity” as they had too many American-African employees, it further alleges.
Plantiffs are suing for back pay, and general and punitive damages. The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of more than 250 current and former black Wet Seal managers.
"Wet Seal is an equal opportunity employer with a very diverse workforce and customer base. We deny any and all allegations of race discrimination and will vigorously defend this matter," the company said in a statement Thursday.
Wet Seal operates a total of 553 stores in 47 states and Puerto Rico, according to the company.
The plantiffs' lawyer, Brad Seligman, also led the sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart that sought class-action status for more than 1.5 million current or former female employees of the mega-retailer. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that there appeared to be no companywide policy promoting discrimination.