Ruling in Sterling Gender Discrimination Case Narrows Class

Sterling Jewelers has scored a big victory in the now 9-year-old case accusing it of gender discrimination, with a federal judge barring a 70,000-employee class from pressing its claims in arbitration.

The result leaves the plaintiffs with a class composed of just 250 women who have opted to press their discrimination claims in the case.

Sterling mandates that certain disputes be settled by arbitration—a rule that, at least in theory, is supposed to keep bills down for both parties. This dispute, however, had dragged on since 2009.

At issue is whether an arbitrator can certify a class action in a manner similar to a standard court case.  In 2015, arbitrator Kathleen Roberts certified a 70,000-woman class of Signet employees. Like most class actions, this one included members who did not opt in. If Roberts’ ruling held, it would be one of the largest class-action arbitrations in legal history.

Sterling appealed the certification. In a Jan. 16 opinion, New York federal judge Jed S. Rakoff agreed with the company that the arbitrator had exceeded her authority under the company’s dispute resolution rules.

Plaintiff lawyer Joseph M. Sellars did not respond to JCK’s requests for comment at press time.

However, Sellars told Reuters that he intended to appeal the ruling and noted that at least 10,000 women opted in to a separate arbitration against Sterling which involves claims under the Equal Pay Act.

David Bouffard, spokesperson for Sterling owner Signet, said that “the Arbitrator’s class certification ruling was overbroad and contrary to law, as it served to include those who had never opted in to the case and were not parties to the litigation …Throughout this case, Sterling has taken the allegations of pay and promotions very seriously, we have thoroughly examined the facts, and we believe that the allegations are without merit.”

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JCK News Director

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