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.

Feb 27, 2002 at 4:00 am
The thin, attractive blonde stood up before a room of Rent-A-Center's top execs -- the only woman in a sea of white shirts, dark suits and ties -- and began delivering her report on the company's tax situation.

She didn't get far. Before Leigh had completed two sentences, Ernie Talley, crimson-faced and ready to explode, rocketed from his chair, bellowing, "That's not what I wanted!"

No stranger to workplace stress, Leigh tried to calm the boss down, explaining why what he wanted wouldn't be meaningful.

Bad move.

Nobody questioned the chief executive officer of Rent-A-Center -- especially not a woman. Pushing his face just inches from Leigh's, Talley slammed his fist on the conference room table and shouted, "By God, you will have what I want or I will find someone who will!"

Humiliated by the dressing-down and furious that her own supervisor, the chief financial officer, kept his lips zipped during the tirade, Leigh snatched her files, fled from the conference room and made her way back to her office. "I just sat there, and tears were streaming -- and I'm a hardcore type of girl; I'm not a little prissy dame," Leigh says.

From the very start, Talley seemed less than thrilled with the idea of giving 32-year-old Leigh the proverbial keys to the executive washroom. Talley had this thing about women -- he had been heard to say that women belonged in the kitchen, not in the rent-to-own business.

The attitude was pervasive in the nation's largest rent-to-own company, permeating its operations, from headquarters to the smallest branch office.

Women were subjected to sexual and derisive comments.

Work requirements were changed in an effort to induce female employees to quit and keep women from applying. Pregnant employees were summarily fired.

Women who complained about boorish or offensive behavior were ignored or punished.

What was going on at Rent-A-Center, judging from hundreds of accounts, wasn't just fraternity hijinks but a systemic, top-down corporate culture that drove women employees away. It was a culture that reflected Talley's attitudes and one that could prove costly to the company. Today, Rent-A-Center is the target of a sex-discrimination lawsuit that seeks damages of $410 million, an amount that could put the Plano, Texas-based company in the same league as Mitsubishi, Shoney's, State Farm, Home Depot and other companies nailed in big-dollar discrimination cases. But the company is trying some fancy legal footwork that'd let it dodge the potentially huge price for everything it's done to female employees.

Leigh, a certified public accountant who asked that her surname not be published, got her first glimpse of Rent-A-Center culture and Ernie Talley when she interviewed with the company in January 1999. The gray-haired 64-year-old seemed to care more about her personal life than her qualifications, she recalls. He asked whether she was married or had children -- questions that most employers know are off-limits in a job interview.

Then, she says, Talley glanced at Robert Davis, his 28-year-old CFO, and said reluctantly, "Well, I don't know if this is gonna work, but if you want to try it, fine."

The personal questions and Talley's icy demeanor made her want to turn down the job offer, but Davis later assured her that Talley was planning to leave the business. Moreover, Davis promised, Leigh's contact with Talley would be minimal -- he'd act as a go-between.

But Davis wasn't the best messenger. Although he held the title of chief financial and accounting officer, Davis wasn't much of a bean-counter -- he wasn't a CPA or even particularly well-versed in accounting practices. As a result, Leigh says, the instructions she got from Davis were typically half-assed. Besides, he seemed more interested in popping his head into her office to ask, "I'm just wondering, did you have sex last night?"

On rare occasions, Talley summoned her to his office, where he often sat enveloped in a thick haze of cigar smoke. But Leigh dreaded the personal appearances before the person she describes as "a nasty man -- not nasty as in a sexual way but mean."

Then one day Leigh discovered a lump in a lymph node. Her doctor wanted to see her immediately -- he was leaving town and wouldn't return for two weeks. She took the only appointment available, but when she told Davis, he insisted that she'd have to reschedule -- Talley wanted her at a meeting.

Leigh canceled her appointment but says, "Not once during this 'mandatory' meeting was my presence even acknowledged." Fuming, Leigh sent Davis an e-mail: "In the future, I would appreciate advance notice of any meeting in which my involvement may be needed." Moments later, Davis stormed into her office and fired Leigh for insubordination, the third woman in 15 months to be kicked out of the position.

Things weren't any better for Leigh's successor. Donna Smith claims that after she took the job, Davis sought her out and described the "nasty" dreams he had had about her and discussed his penis size. After Smith complained, she received an unfavorable evaluation.

A year later, Smith sent a resignation letter to Talley, stating that she could no longer work for a company whose top management tolerated "sexual harassment and discrimination."

"I do not believe that upper management promotes the advancement or enrichment of women," she wrote. "Nor do I believe that women are judged by the same standards as their male colleagues."

If the women at headquarters were complaining, they were hardly alone. As Talley's company grew, so did allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Even highly regarded veteran employees felt the sting. Just ask Claudine Wilfong, a former store manager in Arnold, Mo.

Wilfong had 11 years with Rent-A-Center when it was acquired by Talley's company, Renter's Choice, in 1998. Rent-A-Center had been a good place to work -- that is, before the company was sold to the people she now describes as the "good ol' boys from Texas."

She proudly displayed the plaques her store had received for winning store-of-the-month and sales contests. And she expected to serve the new company as a good manager, which she did by meeting or exceeding their new sales and collections goals.

But stereotypes seemed to matter more than job performance.

Wilfong recalls that when Rent-A-Center vice president Dowell Arnette spoke at a store managers' meeting in Kansas City, he joked about how the women were "probably better at selling washers and dryers" than the men. Arnette admitted he didn't really know anything about the machines or how to "press the buttons" because his wife did all the washing at home.

After the sale in 1998, the Texas owners also increased the lifting requirement for store employees from 50 pounds to 75. Managers such as Wilfong and Karen Dueker-Meyer of Farmington, Mo., claim they were ordered to send female workers out alone to make deliveries and pickups. Meyer says her market manager made her send a woman to collect a side-by-side refrigerator from a customer; if the employee refused, Meyer was supposed to fire her. But Wilfong and Meyer claim they were never encouraged to send men out alone on large deliveries.

James Weinrich, Oklahoma regional manager at the time of the 1998 acquisition, said in a sworn statement that Talley, Arnette and Arnette's brother, training director Joe Arnette, told him that the new weight-lifting requirements would "keep females from applying."

Weinrich added: "All three men made it a point that there was an unwritten rule that women employees should be sent out alone on deliveries." Weinrich said the thinking was, if you work them hard enough, they'll quit or give management a reason to fire them.

When executives from the home office came out to visit Weinrich's stores, instead of asking about a woman's job performance, executives such as Dowell Arnette and senior vice president Tom Lopez seemed more interested in her physical attributes. An overweight female employee was called a "fat bitch," and executives wanted to know from Weinrich whether attractive female employees "put out."

Other male managers had similar tales.

Rick Corey was an Ohio store manager for Crown TV before it was purchased by Talley. After the purchase, he recalls in a sworn statement, "the number of female employees in the nine-store district was reduced to a single female employee." And when Corey sent a female candidate to take a management test, he allegedly incurred the wrath of Bill Nutt, who would later rise to the rank of regional director. Nutt "came to my store in order to criticize and berate me for sending a female candidate," Corey says. Nutt allegedly told him, "In case you didn't notice, we do not employ women."

The message that women employees weren't wanted or welcome at Rent-A-Center started with the highest-ranking officers and filtered all the way down to delivery drivers.

Women claim they were sent out to handle deliveries alone. If a manager found out a woman was pregnant, she was often deemed "disabled" and fired on the spot. Teri Goodermote, who worked at a store in North Adams, Mass., claims that once her manager learned of her pregnancy, he started giving her the heavy deliveries and had her load a bedroom set onto a truck by herself or face termination. The job of cleaning bathrooms became known as "woman's work" in states as far-flung as Ohio, Florida and New York. Other women simply weren't hired -- many of their completed applications allegedly thrown in the trash can.

The atmosphere also seemed to give male co-workers a license to engage in base, crude and even abusive behavior. A woman who worked as an account manager in Atlantic Beach, Fla., alleges that her store manager popped hardcore-porn tapes into the store's VCRs and enjoyed stopping the shows at particularly graphic points. In El Reno, Okla., the male employees found a pornographic picture of a woman with facial features similar to those of an account manager. They showed customers the photos, claiming they were actually of the account manager. When a male assistant manager in Massachusetts grabbed a female account manager's backside and was met with a slap in the face, it was the woman who was disciplined for insubordination. Many of Rent-A-Center's female employees, such as Teresa Greenough, felt overwhelmed and helpless in the environment.

"I can't take it anymore," she eventually told her manager when she quit.

Others were fired.

Before it became part of Talley's empire in 1998, Rent-A-Center's workforce was 20.9 percent female. That same year, Talley's company, Renter's Choice, only had a female workforce of 1.8 percent. Two years after Talley bought Rent-A-Center and merged it with his company, the proportion of women in the combined workforce had fallen to 8.5 percent -- about half the women working for the company were gone. At the same time, one regional manager urged his store managers in a memo to "continue to hire gents." So as the pool of women workers shrank, the ranks of male employees grew.

It wasn't any better at the top levels of the company. According to a 1999 company directory, all seven vice presidents were men, all 45 male regional directors were men, 261 men and seven women held the position of market manager and 30 men and just two women were service managers. In the October 2000 company newsletter, Rental Times, the cover featured a group photo of Rent-A-Center's regional directors -- all men. Inside, the headline read, "Meet the 'Suits' who try to motivate us."

The "suits" clearly motivated ex-employees such as Claudine Wilfong.

On March 15, 1999, Wilfong filed a complaint with the St. Louis office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company "engaged in class-wide discrimination" in St. Louis and across the country. And she hired three private St. Louis lawyers to go after the company.

Sparked by Wilfong's complaint, the EEOC joined with the lawyers in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in East St. Louis. As the case developed, they amassed evidence from more than 270 women and 30 men, in 47 states, that painted a picture of a company intent on purging women from its ranks.

Faced with a mountain of evidence and a demand for damages exceeding $400 million, the good ol' boys saw it was time to pull a fast one. With another judge and some compliant lawyers and clueless plaintiffs, they reasoned, they just might be able to make the whole mess disappear.

The book on J. Ernest Talley is that he's tough as a cheap steak and knows how to make money. Talley grew up in northwest Arkansas; his high school was just a stone's throw from Harrison. It's the area that gave Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton his start and later attracted transplants such as Ku Klux Klanner Thom Robb.

After high school, Talley moved north to Wichita, Kan., enrolled at Wichita State University and took a part-time job with the Boeing Aircraft company. He abandoned college after opening an appliance store, Mr. T's. According to a 1991 profile in Progressive Rentals, a trade magazine, Talley noticed that banks were becoming less willing to make small loans for appliance purchases.

To bridge the credit gap, Talley began experimenting with the rent-to-own concept. By 1974, he had 14 stores scattered throughout the South and Midwest. He hired men who subsequently developed into industry leaders -- men such as Chuck Sims, who started the Remco chain; and Tom Devlin, who co-founded Rent-A-Center.

Devlin, who sold Rent-A-Center to Wichita-based Thorn Americas in 1988, describes Talley as "creative and into making money." But he doesn't recall Talley discriminating against women. "Ernie believed red, white, black, green, if they could make you money, you would hire them." But, he said, that doesn't mean "there isn't someone under him who didn't do that."

Talley's standards were high, and employees who fell short didn't stick around long. According to Progressive Rentals, Talley had a totem pole with pictures of his managers affixed to it. Managers with the best sales performance were at the top; those with the worst were at the bottom. When business was bad, the bottom three faces on the totem pole got the ax. In 1974, Talley decided to get out of the appliance business and began investing in apartment complexes, many in Texas. He sold his chain to Sims, one of his managers.

Talley jumped into Kansas politics, running for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives in 1976 as a fiscally conservative Republican. The largely white middle-class district in Wichita elected him twice. He quit after two terms but was later drawn back into local politics because he "got frustrated, this time with my school district." Talley lived in Goddard, a small town just outside the Wichita city limits, when he ran for and won a seat on the school board in 1981. After one term, he left politics for good and moved to Texas, where most of his business interests already were.

In 1989, Talley re-entered the rent-to-own business by becoming a partner in Vista Rent-to-Own, which had stores in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. He also teamed up with son Mike Talley to form Talley Leasing -- with stores in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Tampa. Talley's apartment properties and appliance businesses were complementary: Tenants could lease items from his appliance store.

In 1993, Talley formed Renter's Choice and merged Vista into the new company. Then began a series of mergers and acquisitions as Talley gobbled up smaller chains such as Crown Leasing, Magic Rent-to-Own, Kelway Rent-to-Own, ColorTyme and Central Rents. By May 1998, Talley had amassed 700 stores throughout the United States, but his still wasn't the biggest rent-to-own chain.

That was about to change.

Like a snake swallowing prey twice its size, Talley made a bid to buy Wichita-based Rent-A-Center's 1,400 stores from Thorn America for $900 million. On Aug. 5, 1998, the deal was consummated.

Corporate-culture clashes happen whenever businesses merge, but for the women working in the Wichita headquarters during the acquisition, the attitudes of the new regime were shocking, especially when Dowell Arnette -- Talley's right-hand man -- came to visit.

When Angela Turner, an administrative assistant, wore a skirt to the office, Turner claimed in a sworn statement that Arnette allegedly said, "So, how far do your legs go up?" When administrative specialist Toni Spurgeon-Coker wore red, she alleged in a sworn statement, Arnette "sized me up from head to toe as if I were in a bar. He said to me, 'Ooooh, you look good in red.'" But when Spurgeon-Coker went to the legal department to repeatedly complain about Arnette's behavior, nothing was done, she claimed. Many of the women in the corporate office felt trapped. To get their severance packages, they were required to remain for the whole transition period.

The new regime also jettisoned Thorn's human-resources department. Jim Weinrich alleges that Dowell Arnette described the HR department as full of "namby-pamby, willy-nilly women." Renter's Choice didn't have an HR department and wasn't interested in adding one to manage the company, which now had 11,300 employees. Workers with personnel issues, including harassment and discrimination complaints, were told to take it to their managers, then their managers' managers. As a last resort, workers could turn to Marty Roustio, who held the title "manager of co-worker relations."

By the end of 1998, the Wichita headquarters had been closed and everything had been consolidated in Plano. One Thorn tradition the new management kept was an annual Las Vegas convention for the company's top brass, middle management and store managers. But under Talley's leadership, the convention turned into a fraternity party, complete with scantily clad female cheerleaders available for photos with employees and group outings to strip clubs.

Although some of the women who attended the convention found it offensive, St. Louis store manager Tammy Shell says it was fun. Shell, who last year pulled down $74,000 in salary and commissions, was one of the women Rent-A-Center's spokesman suggested that the Riverfront Times contact for this story. Shell says she didn't have a problem with the cheerleaders' booth; in fact, she agreed to have her picture taken with them. And as far as watching topless women gyrate around a metal pole or perform lap dances on middle-aged men, Shell didn't mind. She says she had a good time at the strip clubs because the Rent-A-Center guys were "playing like they were Rams players and the strippers were all over them."

Even John Madden -- that is, John Madden's likeness -- became part of the sophomoric hijinks. Madden, the former football coach and Fox Sports personality, joined Rent-A-Center as a spokesman in February 2000. His image is plastered on store windows, hangs from store ceiling and appears on life-size posters on showroom floors throughout the chain.

At one store in Bridgeport, Mich., a recently hired male worker cut the crotch out of a stand-alone Madden display and inserted a hotdog. One of the men working in the store bent over a desk and, with the Madden poster propped up nearby, posed for a photo of simulated anal sex. Another photo shows the man crouched on the floor, mimicking oral sex with the poster.

Gwen Davis, an account manager at the store, found the scene offensive. But when she complained to her store manager, he laughed and invited a manager from another store over to look at the pictures. Davis called Roustio, manager of co-worker relations, and initially he didn't even believe the incident occurred. When she faxed him two of the photos, he called her back a few days later and said the men had claimed she took the illicit photos, insinuating she had been part of the whole prank.

"You are gonna believe an employee who has been here less than 30 days over me?" Davis asked Roustio incredulously.

He did.

The men weren't disciplined. For Davis, the incident was one of many she'd already endured at Rent-A-Center. She quit, but with no money coming in, she was forced to rely on food stamps for her family and borrow money from relatives.

Just five months after the acquisition by Talley, Rent-A-Center had become a downright hostile place for women.

"No matter how hard I worked or tried, or what I did in the past, none of it mattered," Wilfong, the Arnold store manager says. "Just because I'm a female, it didn't matter."

On Jan. 1, 1999, Wilfong quit. For a few months, she says, she lay around in her pajamas, feeling "pretty depressed, pretty sad." She'd invested more than a decade in the company, building up a successful store. Now, she says, "it just seemed like it was all for nothing."

But then she started talking to other women, some who'd left Rent-A-Center and others who were trying to "stick it out and it wasn't going good for them." Wilfong realized, "It wasn't just me that felt betrayed, everybody did." Wilfong decided she owed it to her daughter to stand up to the company.

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.

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.

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.

Bunch and Levings, the Kansas City plaintiffs, refused to talk to the Riverfront Times, citing instructions from their lawyers; the lawyers did not return repeated calls.

But back in federal court in East St. Louis, Herndon demanded an explanation from Rent-A-Center's lawyers. They insisted that Sedey, Ray and Schlichter were invited to talk about a settlement, a claim the women's lawyers say is untrue. Rent-A-Center's lawyers also asked Herndon to delay ruling on the motion for class certification until March 6, the final approval-hearing date scheduled in Kansas City, but Herndon refused to stop his case; on Dec. 27, he granted Claudine Wilfong and the other women's request, in effect creating a second, competing class of Rent-A-Center women.

Rent-A-Center sent a memo to its employees informing them of the Kansas City settlement and urged female employees to participate. The Kansas City lawyers are doing the same. On the other side, the EEOC and the lawyers in the East St. Louis case are fighting back, asking the women to opt out of the Kansas City settlement. Sedey claims she knows that at least 950 women asked to be taken out of the Kansas City case.

The EEOC blasts the proposed settlement. Harper says the relief is inadequate -- "and I'm not just talking about money. I'm talking about jobs and injunctions, what they plan to do in the future and how they plan to do it."

When Claudine Wilfong found out about the Kansas City shuffle, she wasn't surprised.

"I just felt like they were trying to get one over on the women again," Wilfong says. "They're looking for any way to get rid of us." The amount the company wants to pay would just be "a slap on their hands, and it was really nothing compared to what they did and how many women's jobs are gone."

Leigh, the former exec who had an unhappy run-in with Talley, says she doesn't know much about the Kansas City settlement, but, judging from what her lawyer tells her, she agrees: It's another attempt by Rent-A-Center to screw its ex-employees.

It took Leigh nearly a year to line up new work after she was let go. It was hard enough to understand why she'd been fired, let alone explain the situation to new employers. After she finally landed a high-level position with another company, she agreed to get involved in the suit in an attempt to correct "something that was wrong."

Even if she wins, Leigh says, she'll always be haunted by the fear that she carries "the taint that goes along with women who complain about sexual harassment."