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Simultaneously resolving federal sex discrimination lawsuits in three different states, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has entered into a far-reaching $47 million settlement with Rent-A-Center, the Plano, Texas-based national lease-to-own furniture and appliance dealer. The deal, which has yet to be finalized, will resolve allegations that during a three-year period the company (and a corporate predecessor) discriminated against women as job candidates and also against female employees on the job, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The alleged practices spawned class actions in Illinois and Missouri, and the agency’s own suit in Tennessee. According to Donna L. Harper, lead counsel for the EEOC, more than 5,000 women are members of the class, which spans the time period April 1998 to October 2001. The national retailer operates 2,286 stores. In addition to the payment of a monetary penalty, under the terms of the pact, the retailer also agreed to set aside 10 percent of its new openings for members of the class for the next 15 months and to reconstitute its human resources department, which was disbanded after the company’s 1998 merger with the Texas-based Renters Choice. Rent-A-Center also must agree to injunctive relief barring it from engaging again in the discriminatory policies, but the retailer is not required to admit liability. “I think the changes will serve them well,” Harper said. Noting that she had never before seen such a large company operating without a human resources division, she added, “it will be a much more effective operation.” Rent-A-Center’s lead counsel, Dan Dargene of Winstead Sechrest & Minick of Dallas, declined to comment on the settlement. But a company press release quoted company president Mitch Fedel as saying, “We strongly believe that a diverse work force free of discrimination creates the best and most profitable company. We endorse the procedures recommended by the EEOC and plaintiff’s counsel, many of which have previously been initiated.” COMPETING CLASS ACTIONS The agreement unties the Gordian procedural knot created by the competing class actions and the EEOC’s own Tennessee federal district court case originally filed against Renters Choice. Harper called the procedural complexities of the cases “astonishing.” When Renters Choice merged with Rent-A-Center, it adopted the latter’s name for the entire business. Harper explained that one immediate result of that merger was an organized effort to purge the company of female employees. “Rent-A-Center eviscerated the female work force,” she said. Those actions prompted the filing of an Illinois suit titled Wilfong v. Rent-A-Center, No. 00-CV-0680. The EEOC intervened in that action in May 2001. That case was certified as a class action in December 2001. By the time the Illinois case was certified, another consolidated action was already certified as a class action by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. That case combined Bunch v. Rent-A-Center, No. 00-0364, with Levings v. Rent-A-Center, No. 00-0596. An October 2001 attempt by the Bunch/Levings lawyers to fashion a $12.2 million settlement covering all of the pending cases was criticized harshly by the EEOC and by the National Organization for Women, Harper said. She called that deal “completely inadequate,” because it failed to provide jobs for those who had been discriminated against, and contained neither a provision for court oversight nor a reporting requirement which would have obliged the company to submit hiring and personnel reports to the agency, court or plaintiffs’ counsel at regular intervals. More than 1,000 women opted out of that proposed settlement, Harper added. St. Louis employment attorney MaryAnn Sedey was counsel for the Wilfong class. She said she was “thrilled” that during the next 15 months women who were members of the class will have the opportunity to gain employment with the company. “These are very good jobs. They pay substantially more than most jobs for people without more than a high school education,” Sedey said. She also said the pact forces the retailer to implement new personnel policies where there had previously been none. Included in those policies is the adoption of companywide equal employment opportunity and sexual harassment training “all the way down to the lowest level” employee. Noting the changes in corporate culture wrought by the suits and the settlement, Sedey said, “It’s a new day at Rent-A-Center.” She predicted that the agreement in principle would become an agreement in fact within 30 days of the March 8 announcement date.

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