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Wilfong contacted Mary Anne Sedey and Jon A. Ray, prominent St. Louis employment-discrimination lawyers who'd been involved in successful discrimination cases against Mitsubishi and St. Louis-based HBE Corp. At their first meeting, Wilfong showed Sedey and Ray two Rent-A-Center telephone directories, one from August 1998 and the other from April 1999. During the seven-month period, Ray says, "all the girls' names changed to boys' names."
Wilfong brought with her the names of eight other women who had worked for Rent-A-Center. Sedey and Ray met with the women, each of whom told a tale of discrimination or harassment that didn't start until after the company was acquired by Talley. Suspicious that there was more at work than just one discriminatory store manager or market manager, Sedey and Ray began calling other women around the country. As soon as the word "discrimination" was mentioned, the lawyers say, the women couldn't wait to talk about Rent-A-Center.
"I've been doing employment-discrimination law for 26 years, and I have never, in 26 years, seen anything like what went on at Rent-A-Center after the takeover by Renter's Choice," Sedey says. "One of the things that still shocks me is that women from all over the country were told 'It is part of your job to clean the bathrooms'; women were also made to clean up after men. This is like something out of the 1950s."
As the stories accumulated, St. Louis lawyer Jerry Schlichter, who has been involved in huge class-actions such as the Times Beach dioxin case, joined Sedey and Ray. But before a sex-discrimination lawsuit could be filed, federal law required the women to first go to the EEOC. Donna Harper, supervisory attorney at the EEOC's St. Louis office, was working as the intake attorney when the women filed charges against Rent-A-Center. Harper says the charges caught her attention because "it is usually older workers who are complaining about losing their jobs," in mergers, "not women." Harper searched the EEOC's national database and turned up 25 to 30 additional open charges around the country. She consolidated the cases in the St. Louis office. At about the same time, the EEOC office in Memphis, Tenn., was pursuing similar claims against Talley's Rent-A-Center for discriminating against women after it acquired another rent-to-own company.
Harper says her office found that not only did the new owners of Rent-A-Center discharge women as a group, the company was throwing up roadblocks to keep women from being hired. Three managers admitted to the federal agency that they had destroyed women's employment applications, a federal-regulation violation. The EEOC issued a determination finding "reasonable cause" to believe Rent-A-Center "discriminated against women."
In August 2000, Wilfong and 18 other women filed their lawsuit against Rent-A-Center in the federal court in East St. Louis. The women alleged that Rent-A-Center had engaged in a company-wide practice of "conscious, intentional and sex-based" discrimination after Talley took over the company. The discrimination, the suit alleged, "emanates from top management." And in March 2001, the EEOC asked the court to allow it to join the lawsuit as a plaintiff, arguing that the case was "of general public importance." Despite Rent-A-Center's opposition, U.S. District Judge David R. Herndon granted the agency's request on May 4, 2001.
Rent-A-Center hired a team of four silk-stocking and employment-law firms, led by Dallas-based Winstead, Sechrist & Minick, to defend the case. Asked about the lawsuit and the claims made by the women, Rent-A-Center executives referred the Riverfront Times to the company's outside public-relations firm, which issued a prepared statement describing allegations of harassment and discrimination as untrue:
"There has been no finding in any court of law that any of these allegations are true. In many cases, they are nothing more than third-party recollections of something that somebody thought that they might have overheard." In the statement, Rent-A-Center says the company is committed to a "discrimination-free workplace and to assuring equal opportunity for all of its employees." Finally, the company noted that it has a confidential 800 hotline number for processing employee questions and complaints, manned by the manager of co-worker relations, Marty Roustio.
Talley, who retired from the company on Oct. 8 and has since sold his shares in the company for about $60 million, did not return our phone calls. In a deposition, Talley denied saying that women didn't belong in the business and stressed that he thinks that some of Rent-A-Center's female managers are "the best we have." As for other the other top execs, the spokesperson said that the company's blanket denial of wrongdoing also applied to them.
Once Rent-A-Center filed its response to the East St. Louis lawsuit, the case took procedural twists so unbelievable that they wouldn't be out of place in a John Grisham novel.
When the women's attorneys sent discovery requests to Rent-A-Center, the company refused to answer. When they filed a motion with the court to compel Rent-A-Center to cooperate, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn ordered the company to answer within 20 days. Rent-A-Center asked Cohn to reconsider; he didn't change his mind.
Still fighting, Rent-A-Center took up the matter with Judge Herndon. The federal judge denied the request and ordered the company to cough up the documents. But three weeks after Herndon's order, the company still hadn't produced a single document.