A case claiming certain Sterling Jewelers policies treat women unfairly will proceed, but with a far narrower focus than claimants asked for.
On Feb. 2, arbitrator Kathleen Roberts ruled that a dozen former and current Sterling female employees can pursue their claim that the company’s pay and promotion policies adversely impacted women workers. The policies in question include the jeweler’s formula for determining an employee’s initial salary, as well as its method for granting promotions.
However, Roberts tossed the most damaging assertion in the seven-year-old case—that a “corporate culture of gender bias” existed at Sterling, evidenced by instances of alleged sexual harassment, groping, and inappropriate remarks. (Sterling said it investigated those claims and found them without merit.) Roberts said the claimants failed to provide sufficient proof of deliberate discrimination.
The ruling means the claimants can seek only injunctive or declaratory relief—i.e., a change in the disputed policies—not the monetary damages originally sought. However, if they do prevail, claimant attorney Joseph M. Sellers, a partner with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, says affected class members may be able to request lost wages.
And while the decision grants class certification for female Sterling employees, the sides differ as to which employees are covered in that class.
Sellers says the class encompasses both present and future employees, pointing to the arbitrator’s reference to 44,000 class members. But Sterling says that it includes only current employees, given that the claimants can seek only injunctive relief, which applies solely to existing workers.
“That is something the arbitrator will have to clarify,” Sellers says.
Sterling spokesperson David Bouffard calls the ruling “favorable.”
“Only one small part of the arbitration will go forward that involves a very limited question based on complex, technical analyses, and statistical theories,” he says, adding that the company considers the issue without merit, noting that women make up 70 percent of the company’s assistant store managers and 60 percent of its store managers.
But Sellers says that his clients were pleased with the class certification and “look forward to obtaining meaningful monetary relief and changes to the challenged practices.”
The case was sent to arbitration as a result of Sterling’s dispute-resolution policy.