LOS ANGELES -- Three former employees of Wet Seal Inc. have filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against the teen clothing store operator, claiming management set out to fire African-American employees because they didn't fit the retailer's "brand image."
The complaint was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California and seeks class-action status.
Wet Seal, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., denies the allegations and says it will mount a vigorous defense.
Plaintiffs Nicole Cogdell, Kai Hawkins and Myriam Saint-Hilaire, are all residents of Delaware County, Pa.
Cogdell and Hawkins were store managers when they were fired by Wet Seal. Saint-Hilaire was an assistant store manager.
They have asked the court to order they be rehired and paid unspecified lost pay, benefits, compensatory and punitive damages.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs contend that, beginning in 2008 and through the present, Wet Seal has had a "policy and practice" of discriminating against African-American store management employees at its namesake stores as well as its Arden B shops.
The lawsuit claims that the policy was adopted by the retailer's top executives, who used it to target African-American employees for termination, as well as to deny them pay and promotions.
The complaint references e-mails and testimony from former managers that allegedly show high-level Wet Seal executives instructing managers to fire African-American employees and "diversify" the company's work force by hiring and promoting white employees "who fit the Wet Seal brand image."
"They perceived that they would reach white markets better if they had more white managers," Brad Seligman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview. "You have explicit directions from the very top of the company to terminate African-American managers."
Seligman said Cogdell was told by her district manager that she was being fired literally because she is African-American.
Hawkins and Saint-Hilaire also were fired for "trumped-up" reasons, Seligman added.
In a statement on Thursday, Wet Seal touted the diversity of the company's work force.
"Wet Seal is an equal opportunity employer with a very diverse workforce and customer base," the company said.
As of June 30, the company operated 470 Wet Seal stores and 83 Arden B locations across 47 states and Puerto Rico.
Shares slipped 5 cents to $3.15 during regular trading Thursday.