Friedman’s is the focus of a class-action discrimination lawsuit and an EEOC investigation

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court, four persons (three African-Americans and one white) charged Friedman’s Jewelers, the nation’s third largest jewelry chain, with a pattern of discriminating against African-American employees and applicants.

In addition to the class-action suit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating complaints by the four plaintiffs, says lead attorney for the class action case, Morris J. Baller of Goldstein, Dechak, Baller, Borgen & Dardarian (GDBBD), an Oakland, Calif., law firm that specializes in discrimination and civil rights cases. In two of the cases, he said, the EEOC has “found that [discrimination] is a pattern.” Two other cases still are being investigated.

Denis Shanagher, the attorney for the Savannah, Ga.-based jewelry based chain, which operates 650 stores in 20 states, said in a statement that the allegations in the lawsuit “are unsubstantiated and without merit. Friedman’s is an Equal Opportunity Employer that values the contributions of all of its employees regardless of race, color, national origin, gender, age, religion, disability, veteran’s status, citizenship, or sexual orientation. Employment discrimination of any kind is not tolerated.”

In order to file the case under Title 7 of the federal law, which specifically prohibits discrimination, attorneys normally must receive a letter to proceed from the EEOC. Two of the cases, however, are still being investigated. To avoid delaying the case any longer, Baller — along with attorneys Thomas A. Warren of Tallahassee, Fla., and Daniel Edelman of Yablonski, Both & Edelman, Washington, D.C. — decided to file the case under a lesser-known part of the federal law, Section 1981. Created after the American Civil War (Section 1981), which requires the equal enforcement of all contracts, regardless of race.

After filing the case in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., the four plaintiffs and their attorneys held a press conference at the National Press Club, to outline the charges.

Among the complaints are:

* Explicitly limiting the number of African-Americans hired and rejecting qualified African-American applicants for store associate and store manager jobs.

* Denying qualified African-Americans promotions to management positions above store manager.

* Using discriminatory criteria to make compensation, hiring, and promotional decisions.

* Maintaining an all-white higher-level management despite having African-American employees qualified for and interested in such jobs.

* Paying African-American employees less than similarly qualified white employees.

* Failing and refusing to take reasonable and adequate steps to eliminate the continuing effects of Friedman’s past discriminatory policy and/or patterns or practices.

* Maintaining a work environment that is hostile to African-American employees.

“We want to put an end to Friedman’s discrimination policies,” Baller said. “Many victims may not even be aware that they were being discriminated against. Others who knew that this was the result of discrimination may not know it is a companywide pattern.”

The four persons making the charges (John O’Bannon, College Park, Md.; Sandra Seabrook, Beaufort County, S.C.; Ronald Hampton, Richland County, S.C.; and Rondall Mitchell, Lusby, Md.) each presented their stories. But the most damning piece of evidence may be the recorded voice of one of the Savannah, Ga.-based company’s division vice presidents, identified as Jack Steele.

Mitchell, who is white, said he made the recording with Steele’s full knowledge that he was being recorded. Mitchell worked for Friedman’s in a number of management positions from 1995-1996 and again from 1998-2000. From March 1999 to Nov. 2000, he was senior partner in charge of 12 Friedman’s stores in the Maryland area. Mitchell claims he was fired from this position for opposing Friedman’s policies and practices.

Mitchell says he used the tape recorder as a way to take notes and manage his appointments. He insists the recorder was in plain view on a desk between the two when Steele visited Mitchell’s office. One excerpt from the tape, which was played during the press conference, included the following:

“Well, right now, Eastpoint is our problem. Largo is a piece of (expletive). We got to get a staff in there and get rid of all those, get rid of half the black people in there and just transfer their ass. It’s not that I’m mad about, not the black people. It’s not where I am coming from. It’s not right. It’s not right, and I made it clear to everyone that I do not want it to happen …”

In the same conversation, Steele says: “You have hired them because, you have hired them since we talked about it because I would not have had to talk about it a second time because I talked about it a first time.”

In another part of the conversation, Steele says: “We got this Shondra or whatever her name is, this little pregnant black chick. She can’t even smile and hold a (expletive)conversation. We hired her from Pizza Hut. We can do better than that, Ron. You’ve got to raise your standards. And if that’s the only kind of people you can communicate with, then I got a hell of a problem. Now I don’t believe that’s the only kind of people you can communicate with. But why is it it’s the only thing we can attract? Look at that girl, this, this Valerie or Val or whatever she was. Squirrelly hair, whatever you call that mess — real professional looking in a jewelry store. And then the other black girl comes in and she, she looks like Miss Piggy.”

Warren, one of the three attorneys involved in the case, said before playing the tape that Steele’s comments are among the most “crude and disgusting quotes that in our experience we have ever come across.” He compared Steele’s comments to the comments made by a Texaco Inc. official, which resulted in one of the largest settlements of a racial discrimination lawsuit.

Mitchell noted that besides the discriminatory aspect, many of the stores in his region were understaffed because he could not properly staff them by limiting the job market based on race. He said he and his store managers were working anywhere from 12- to 16-hour days because of understaffing.

Friedman’s attorney Shanagher said that Steele was fired based on the allegations.

“With respect to allegations of discriminatory conduct by an employee, these issues have been previously investigated and properly addressed. Specifically, Friedman’s management learned of possible misconduct by an individual in October 2000,” he said. “A thorough and prompt investigation was undertaken and the individual in question was terminated as a result. For the past several years, Friedman’s has been working cooperatively with the U.S. Equal Employment opportunity Commission (EEOC) to bring this matter to closure.”

But the lawsuit claims that the alleged actions by Steele was part of a companywide policy to limit the number of African American employees and to deny African Americans access to upper management positions. For example, one of the plaintiffs, O’Bannon, who is black, claims he was recruited by an African-American manager for a retail sales or entry-level management job but was rejected by upper management.

Moore and Hampton, both African-Americans, worked for Friedman’s stores in South Carolina as “store partners.” Both said they were repeatedly turned down for promotions and other opportunities in the store and were told to limit the hiring of African-Americans because it would affect the racial mix in the stores.

Hampton says he was fired for discriminatory reasons while Moore said her job was terminated due to her repeated interest in promotions.

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