Class-Action Attempt Alleges Gender Bias at Sterling

Sterling Jewelers has become the target of an unusually high-profile attempt at an arbitration class action, which charges that America’s largest jewelry retailer pays female employees less than their male counterparts.

The motion for class certification, which was the subject of a March 28 story in The New York Times, lists 12 former and current Sterling employees as complainants. It charges a “pattern of sex discrimination in promotion and compensation decisions” at Sterling, where male employees regularly earn more money than their female counterparts and have a better shot at being promoted.  

It also claims that Sterling’s reluctance to post job openings—allegedly relying on what plaintiff lawyers term a “tap on the shoulder” promotion system—as well as a purported corporate policy dissuading employees from openly discussing salaries contribute to the situation.

Sterling, which owns the Kay and Jared chains as well as regional nameplates like J.B. Robinson, staunchly denied the claims, calling them “groundless.” 

“Fairness, equal opportunity, and respect for our female employees—and all employees—are central to who we are,” said a statement from spokesman David Bouffard. “We take pride in the fact that of our more than 10,000 sales team members, more than 7 out of 10 are women, as are more than 7 in 10 assistant managers and 6 in 10 store managers.”

“Our merit-based polices and our track record in pay and promotions decisions belie the claims in the lawsuit,” the statement continues.

Also included in the motion are allegations of sexual harassment, some of which date back a decade. Several female complainants allege they were subject to unwelcome advances and inappropriate remarks by male counterparts and claim these episodes were not properly addressed when reported internally.

Bouffard responded that the company took all claims seriously and investigated them “thoroughly.”

“The facts show that they are without merit,” he said. “We have had strict anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies for decades, and we have enforced them, including disciplinary action or termination for employees who have violated them.”

He further notes that a Sept. 2008 suit against Sterling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which centered on the unequal pay allegations and involved 11 of the complainants, was dismissed on March 10 by a New York federal court judge.

The allegations were originally brought to confidential arbitration proceedings under Sterling’s alternative dispute resolution program. In 2009, the case arbitrator ruled the women’s attorneys could file their complaint as a class action, leading to a legal fight that Sterling attempted to take to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2012 declined to hear the case. This year, the case arbitrator allowed the complainants’ law firm to make its motion for class certification public.

The would-be class-action alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act, among other charges, and seeks unspecified damages. If certified, some 20,000 Sterling current and former female employees could qualify as members of the class, the document said.

But the retailer says it will fight any attempt to make this into a larger action, pledging to “vigorously defend the company against groundless legal claims that misrepresent our company’s deep commitment to, and history of, equal opportunity.”

JCK News Director