Abercrombie & Fitch, one of the nation’s largest clothing retailers, settled a $40 million race and discrimination class action lawsuit on Nov. 16 with lawyers on behalf of 16 named plaintiffs representing African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Among the 16 were three UCI students and one alumna, Jennifer Lu, who claims to be satisfied with the settlement.
Lu graduated from UCI in fall of 2003 with a B.A. in criminology, law and society. She worked at the A&F store in the Crystal Court location of South Coast Plaza from September 2000 to February 2003. Lu enjoyed working at the store but was unexpectedly laid off after a corporate representative made a visit to that location in January 2003.
Less than a week following the visit from the corporate representative, Lu and four other Asian-American employees were laid off.
‘We were told that the store didn’t need so many people after Christmas, so they going to have layoffs,” Lu said. ‘It just happened to be all the Asians. But within a week, A&F hired five more sales representatives to replace us. I couldn’t believe it.’
Lu said she was later told by one of the store managers that, ‘The corporate representative told the senior store manager that, ‘You need to have more staff that look like this,’ pointing to an Abercrombie poster. It was a Caucasian model.’
The three UCI students who were laid off with Lu and were named plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Angeline Wu, a criminology, law and society major; Austin Chu, a social ecology major; and Ivy Nguyen, an applied ecology major. Wu, Chu and Nguyen could not be reached for comment by press time.
All four approached the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles for assistance. APALC joined with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and private law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, and filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 16 named plaintiffs in July of 2003.
In addition to paying $40 million to settle the lawsuit, A&F will also have to pay around $10 million to cover attorney’s fees and to monitor compliance for several years by hiring external inspectors.
Also, A&F has entered into a consent decree which forces the company to change its hiring and marketing practices. Among other requirements, A&F has to hire 25 diversity recruiters and a vice president for diversity to ensure a homogenous applicant pool and workforce, and also increase racial variety in its advertisements and catalogs.
‘The best way to describe a consent decree is as a combination of a contractual agreement and a judicial order with the court,’ said Shaheena Simons, MALDEF staff attorney.
Simons estimates around 20,000 to 50,000 former A&F employees or applicants who were allegedly discriminated against based on their race will file a claim to receive compensation as part of this settlement. A claims administrator will determine how much money each person will receive.
Julie Su, litigation director for APALC, was satisfied with the settlement.
‘This is an excellent result,’ Su said. ‘It sends a powerful message in two ways. First, it demonstrates clearly the power of young people, particularly young people of color, to make substantial and systemic changes in our society. … The second message is to corporate America. These practices are illegal, and there’s no place for them in the 21st century.’
Mike Jeffries, chairman and chief executive officer for A&F, said in a news release after the settlement, ‘We have, and always have had, no tolerance for discrimination. We decided to settle this suit because we felt that a long, drawn out dispute would have been harmful to the company and distracting to management. We can now focus on achieving even greater representation of diversity among our associates and management. … We have already started to implement many of these new policies.’
Although Lu is satisfied with the settlement, she is unhappy that A&F didn’t admit any fault.
‘They still did not admit guilt, which kind of upsets me,’ Lu said. ‘In politically correct words, Abercrombie said, ‘We’re still saying we didn’t do it, but we’ll just settle.’ Even though we’re satisfied with the settlement, the most important thing I’m glad with is the terms they’ve agreed to. … It’s not about the money. It’s about policy change, so nobody has to go through what I went through.’