Nasty Boys

The women screwed by Rent-A-Center are threatening to take the company to the cleaners. But Ernie Talley and the rest of his Texas bubbas are trying to have the last laugh.

Then the women's attorneys discovered that computer tapes containing seven years' worth of monthly payroll information had been destroyed. Moreover, several monthly "promotable" lists identifying individuals eligible for promotion couldn't be found.

The women's attorneys filed a motion for sanctions. Herndon ordered at least one of the Texas attorneys to appear in his courtroom. According to a transcript of the hearing on Aug. 17, 2001, Herndon said he was "distressed" by what appeared to be "a complete disregard" of the magistrate's order and ordered the company to pay the women's attorneys for the time they wasted trying to get the information. As for the missing payroll computer tapes, Herndon ordered Rent-A-Center to stop destroying personnel records. The next week, Ernie Talley personally sent out a company-wide letter stating that all personnel information "must be maintained and shall not be spoiled, destroyed or discarded."

What information was finally provided by the company was analyzed by outside experts hired by the plaintiffs' lawyers. Dr. David Peterson, a statistician, compiled a report on Rent-A-Center's hiring, promotion and firing practices. Peterson found that a disproportionate number of women, compared with men, left the company after Talley took over. And Peterson noted that the size of Rent-A-Center's female workforce was well below the average for other companies within the rent-to-own industry.

Roy Tompkins
Claudine Wilfong was a successful store manager in Arnold until Rent-A-Center was sold. She says she owed it to her daughter Ginny (right) to stand up to the company.
Jennifer Silverberg
Claudine Wilfong was a successful store manager in Arnold until Rent-A-Center was sold. She says she owed it to her daughter Ginny (right) to stand up to the company.

Dr. James Misner, an expert on human motion, examined the 75-pound lifting rule and concluded it wasn't a genuine requirement because Rent-A-Center didn't test the applicants on it. The kinesiologist also found that the requirement wasn't correlated with successful job performance and that its real effect was to discourage women from applying.

Tammy Shell, the woman Rent-A-Center urged the Riverfront Times to call, says just about the same thing. Shell, who's never hired a woman during her three-year tenure as a store manager, admits that she's never actually tested any applicants because "there is no test to lift 75 pounds." She also explains that she's never hired any women because the few women who do come into apply usually don't end up taking an application after they're told about the 75-pound lifting requirement. And she adds that because most of "our lifting is done with hand trucks and dollies," an employee doesn't even really need to be able to lift 75 pounds.

Armed with their sworn statements and expert reports, the women in the East St. Louis case were set to file their class-certification motion on the court's deadline date of Nov. 1. But on Oct. 31, Rent-A-Center's lawyers surprised them with a special Halloween trick: They announced a $12.25-million settlement of a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit in Kansas City.

There wasn't even a class-action pending against Rent-A-Center in Kansas City at the time, and yet, if a federal judge approves the settlement there, it will shut down the East St. Louis case.

The Kansas City end run grew out of two individual discrimination suits, filed by Tracy Levings and Margaret Bunch. Although each woman initially asked for a class certification, Rent-A-Center, through the Dallas-based Winstead, Sechrist & Minick, fought the request, and U.S. District Court Judge Ortrie Smith in Kansas City sided with the company.

Rent-A-Center then asked Smith to enforce an arbitration agreement the women had signed. The women opposed the request because arbitration awards are typically much smaller than the awards set forth in jury verdicts, but again Smith sided with the company. He stayed -- or stopped -- their federal lawsuits and sent the women off to arbitration.

But one day before the Wilfong class-certification motion was supposed to be filed in East St. Louis, the Kansas City lawyers and Rent-A-Center's lawyers marched into federal court together and asked Smith to lift the arbitration stay, certify the two women's suits as a class and approve a $12.25 million settlement that would cover 4,800 women, including Claudine Wilfong and most of the women covered by her case. Smith agreed and entered a conditional approval of the settlement. A final hearing on the settlement proposal is set for March 6.

Under the terms of the Kansas City settlement, women could expect to receive anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 dollars each, depending on how long they worked for the company. Rent-A-Center is not required to admit any wrongdoing, and the Kansas City plaintiffs' lawyers -- led by the firms of White, Allinder & Graham and Klamann & Hubbard -- could walk away with fees totaling as much as $2.6 million dollars. The proposed settlement order would have barred any of the women from discussing their claims with any other lawyers, but Smith, to his credit, refused to approve that language. The Kansas City settlement also provided an escape hatch for Rent-A-Center: If more than 92 women opted out of the settlement, the company could walk away from the deal.

As soon as the EEOC and the lawyers in the East St. Louis case found out about the settlement, they tried to intervene. Their requests were initially denied by the judge. A prominent California discrimination lawyer who wasn't involved in the Rent-A-Center matter filed an affidavit with the court, blasting the settlement as "collusive." Others have referred to the tactic as a "reverse auction," in which the women's claims were sold to the lowest bidder.

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