For thousands of women, working at the nation’s largest jewelry retailer meant unequal pay, harassment or worse.
The pay-and-promotions lawsuit against Sterling Jewelers Inc. began the way a lot of these things begin: In 2005, Dawn Souto-Coons walked out of the jewelry store where she had been a successful assistant manager and into a local Tampa-area employment office, claiming sex discrimination in her store. She had been working at a Jared the Galleria of Jewelry for nearly four years. But it was only in the last few months that she began to understand that the thing that kept happening to her there, the thing that seemed to keep happening to so many of the women there, went beyond the regular, standard-issue sexism she had been hearing about her whole life. But what woman is certain that the problem isn’t her, but them?
. . .
The employment lawyer Dawn and Marie eventually contacted in 2005, Sam J. Smith, knew that Sterling was a large company with stores across the country. He realized that the things they were saying indicated what might be a systemic problem. He called Thomas Warren, with whom he had worked on the historically large class-action discrimination suit against the restaurant chain Shoney’s, who in turn called Joseph Sellers, a partner at a large firm specializing in civil rights that could sustain what might be a bigger lawsuit than Dawn and Marie, in their one store, had ever imagined.
The lawyers told Dawn and Marie to tell their colleagues who had worked at Sterling properties to contact them if they had a similar complaint. But all the employees had signed a mandatory arbitration agreement in the flood of paperwork that accompanied their hiring at Sterling — everyone did at the time. Arbitration meant that instead of being heard in a public court, they had to proceed privately in Sterling’s in-house system, called Resolve. The first step of Resolve was an internal investigation. If the employee wasn’t satisfied by the results of that investigation, he or she could ask to be heard by a panel of the employee’s peers and an employment lawyer, all selected by Sterling. If the employee was still dissatisfied, the case was sent to arbitration. Sterling paid the arbitrator. The hearing’s proceedings were carried out with judicial oversight, but they were done in private, and their outcome was sealed. Afterward, if there was a settlement, the employee often had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prohibited the employee from speaking about the case again. The benefit of arbitration to the employee was that the claim was usually resolved more speedily. The benefit to the company was that it was resolved in secret. The secrecy was the point.
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