EEOC, Signet Reach Settlement in Discrimination Case

Buffalo, N.Y.–Signet Jewelers Ltd. and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached a settlement last week, ending one of the two cases in which the retailer is accused of gender discrimination in pay and promotion.

The EEOC originally filed suit against Signet subsidiary Sterling Jewelers Inc. in September 2008 in federal court in Buffalo, N.Y., alleging that the retailer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by paying women less for the same work as men and denying them promotions for which they were qualified.

The court-approved settlement, filed Thursday, states that “no findings of liability or wrongdoing as to Sterling” were found during the course of the litigation.

But it lays out a number of steps the company must take to shore up its employment practices, including bringing on board Nancy Tippins, Ph.D., who is an expert in industrial/organizational psychology, as an independent employment practices expert.

Tippins will spend the next four to six months reviewing the retailer’s hiring, compensation and promotion practices for certain store-level management positions to determine if there are any disparities in the way men and women are treated.

Under the terms of the settlement, Sterling also must conduct additional training on federal discrimination laws and what the EEOC settlement will mean for the company, and post “in conspicuous places” a notice about the settlement.

In addition, the retailer has to appoint a compliance officer at a vice president level or higher to oversee the implementation of and compliance with the consent decree and to review complaints and reports of sex discrimination and retaliation from female retail sales employees.

Throughout the litigation, Sterling, which is the branch of Signet that operates the Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry chains, has denied all the allegations.

In a statement issued Friday, the retailer pointed out that the court-approved settlement does not require it to pay a monetary award, which is unusual in settlements involving the EEOC.

“We are pleased to have resolved this matter with the EEOC,” said Lynn Dennison, Signet’s chief legal, risk and corporate affairs officer. “Signet has a sound framework of policies and practices designed to ensure equal opportunity for women, and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. The additional steps agreed to as part of the consent decree with the EEOC are consistent with our commitment to continuous review and improvement.”

However, Jeffrey Burstein, regional attorney for the New York district of the EEOC, said the reason there was no monetary award is because Sterling faces pay and promotion discrimination allegations in the ongoing class-action arbitration, and the EEOC feels that any monetary relief will be “adequately litigated by competent private class-action counsel” in that case.

Overall, he said the EEOC was “pleased” with the settlement reached in the Sterling case.

The lawsuit filed by the EEOC is separate from the ongoing class arbitration against Sterling Jewelers, which was filed by a group of 12 women in 2008, a few months before the EEOC action.

That case, which now includes 69,000 former and current Sterling employees, contains similar allegations–that the retailer paid women less and passed them over for promotions in favor of men.

Neither case contains allegations of sexual harassment, though there were thousands of pages of sworn statements unsealed recently connected to the class-action arbitration that contain allegations of sexual harassment, sexist and demeaning behavior, and retaliation against women who complained about or reported such behavior (the complaints were never pursued by the claimants’ attorneys).

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