JUNE 17, 2003 – Civil rights attorneys today announced the filing of a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco charging that the hiring and employment practices of Abercrombie & Fitch, one of the nation’s largest clothing retailers, discriminate against Latino, Asian American and African American applicants and employees.
The lawsuit, Gonzalez et al. v. Abercrombie & Fitch, was filed on behalf of nine young adults of color, including students and graduates of the University of California and Stanford, who were refused sales jobs or terminated based on their race or ethnicity. The plaintiffs are represented by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), and the law firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein.
“Through means both subtle and direct, Abercrombie has consistently reinforced to its store managers that they must recruit and maintain an overwhelmingly white workforce,” charged Thomas A. Saenz, Vice President of Litigation for MALDEF. “The company has systematically cultivated an all-white ‘A&F; Look’ and then faulted Latino, African American and Asian American applicants, potential recruits and employees for failing to fit this racially exclusive image,” added Saenz.
Saenz also praised Juancarlos Gomez-Montejano, a UCLA student who was terminated from the Abercrombie store in Santa Monica, for initially bringing the racist employment practices to the attention of MALDEF.
Lieff, Cabraser attorney Bill Lann Lee, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, said this is an important case that challenges a widespread centralized practice of a major nationwide retailer. “For many of the plaintiffs this is their first foray into the job market. It is tragic that Abercrombie taught these young adults that workplace discrimination is not just something in their history books.
“We hope this lawsuit will teach another lesson: Federal civil rights law absolutely prohibits the exclusion and discrimination alleged, and the court can provide a remedy for injustice,” Lee added.
Abercrombie has more than 600 stores and a workforce of 22,000. The retail chain stores use visual media – including wall-sized photographs of models, the A&F; Quarterly magazine, and a television program played on a loop, as well as overwhelmingly white Brand Representatives on the sales floor – to promote the “A&F; Look” and image to employees, customers, and potential applicants. “Promotion of this image facilitates Abercrombie’s discriminatory employment practices,” noted MALDEF attorney Saenz.
Eduardo Gonzalez, a Stanford student from Hayward, California, applied to work in the Abercrombie store in Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara. “When I went to apply for a part-time job, I noticed that all of the sales staff were white. The manager suggested that I work in the stock room or on the late night crew in a non-sales position.
“I was discouraged and felt that I was discriminated against by Abercrombie because I am Latino. But I went across the mall and was hired as a sales associate at a Banana Republic store. I’ve been working successfully in sales there for almost a year,” Gonzalez added.
Plaintiff Anthony Ocampo, a recent Stanford graduate, worked during the Christmas holidays at the Abercrombie Store in Glendale, California, his hometown. When he went to reapply for a summer job, Ocampo, a Filipino-American, was told he couldn’t be hired because “there’s already too many Filipinos.”
“Abercrombie’s version of the ‘back of the bus’ means not letting you on the bus at all,” said Kimberly West-Faulcon, Director of the Western Regional Office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). “They don’t want people of color working in their stores and if minorities do manage to get hired, often the store managers are ordered by company officials to either fire them or reassign them to the stockroom.”
Plaintiff Jennifer Lu worked at the Crystal Court Mall store in Costa Mesa, California for three years while she was a student at U.C. Irvine. “Abercrombie’s corporate representatives came to our store on an inspection tour, pointed to a picture of a white male model and told the manager that he needed to make the store ‘look more like this.’” Lu said. “Within two weeks, five Asian American employees, including me, were terminated and an African American Brand Representative was transferred to the night shift at a different store. The store then hired about five white Brand Representatives to replace us.”
Minah Park, Staff Attorney at the Asian American Pacific Legal Center praised the plaintiffs for stepping forward. “These very bright and highly qualified applicants were refused jobs or denied equal treatment because of their race and ethnicity. Abercrombie has sent a clear signal that people of color are not welcome. These plaintiffs now stand together on behalf of all people of color who have been subjected to Abercrombie’s discriminatory practices to fight for their right to fair and equal treatment.”
Park also announced a website, www.afjustice.com, for people who want to join or assist the lawsuit. “If you have been discriminated against by Abercrombie or have been discouraged from applying, or if you have witnessed discrimination by Abercrombie, we want to hear from you.”
The suit seeks a court order that Abercrombie & Fitch end its alleged policy and practice of discrimination, and award back pay and money damages to plaintiffs and class members.