A federal judge forces the boys of Rent-a-Center to clean up their bad behavior.

Past Due 

A federal judge forces the boys of Rent-a-Center to clean up their bad behavior.

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 she 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, the woman 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 hers, 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, had kept his lips zipped during the tirade, the woman 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 hard-core type of girl; I'm not a little prissy dame," she says.

From the start, Talley had seemed less than thrilled with the idea of giving 32-year-old Leigh, a certified public accountant who asked that her surname not be published, the proverbial keys to the executive washroom.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.

That attitude was pervasive in the nation's largest rent-to-own company.

Women were subjected to sexual and derisive comments.

Work requirements were changed in an effort to induce female employees to quit and to keep women from applying. Pregnant employees were 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-style high jinks but a systemic, top-down corporate culture that drove away female employees. It was a culture that reflected Talley's attitudes and one that will be costly to the company. Rent-a-Center is in the process of settling a sex-discrimination lawsuit that originally sought damages of $410 million, an amount that puts 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.

Leigh 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 Talley seemed to care more about Leigh's 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 going to 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 would 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. Besides, he seemed more interested in popping his head into Leigh's 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. Leigh dreaded appearing 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. She was the third woman in fifteen months to be kicked out of the position.

Things weren't any better for Leigh's successor, Donna Smith. She says that after she took the job, Davis sought her out and described the "nasty" dreams he'd 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."

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, Missouri.

Wilfong had worked for eleven years at 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."

Wilfong 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 that 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, Missouri, 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 the home office sent higher-ups 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 recalled 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 said. 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.

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, Massachusetts, claims that once her manager learned of her pregnancy, he started assigning her the heavy deliveries and told her to 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 coworkers a license to engage in base, crude and even abusive behavior. A woman who worked as an account manager in Atlantic Beach, Florida, alleged that her store manager popped hard-core-porn tapes into the store's VCRs and enjoyed freeze-framing the movies during particularly graphic scenes. In El Reno, Oklahoma, 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 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, had a female workforce of only 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 who had been 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" 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, the area that gave Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton his start and later attracted transplants such as Ku Klux Klansman Thom Robb.

After high school, Talley moved north to Wichita, Kansas, enrolled at Wichita State University and took a part-time job with the Boeing aircraft company. He abandoned college after opening an appliance store called 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 fourteen 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 cofounded 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 says, 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 [his] 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 his son, Mike Talley, to form Talley Leasing -- with stores in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Tampa, Florida. Talley's appliance businesses complemented his apartment properties: 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 August 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.

Angela Turner, an administrative assistant, claimed in a sworn statement that when she wore a skirt to work, 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 alleged 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 coworker relations."

By the end of 1998, the Wichita headquarters had been closed and everything had been consolidated in Plano, Texas. 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 earned $74,000 in salary and commissions, was one of the women Rent-a-Center's spokesman suggested that a reporter 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 games. 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 ceilings and appears on life-size posters on showroom floors throughout the chain.

At one store in Bridgeport, Michigan, a recently hired male worker cut the crotch out of a stand-alone Madden display and inserted a hot dog. 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 coworker relations, who initially 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 going to believe an employee who has been here less than thirty 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. With no paycheck, 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," says Wilfong, the Arnold store manager. "Just because I'm a female, it didn't matter."

On January 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 for whom "it wasn't going good."

"It wasn't just me that felt betrayed; everybody did," she realized. 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 had 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, Tennessee, 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, but the company was also 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-regulations violation. The EEOC issued a determination finding "reasonable cause" to believe Rent-a-Center "discriminated against women."

In August 2000, Wilfong and eighteen 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 a reporter 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 had set up a confidential toll-free hot line for employee questions and complaints, manned by the manager of coworker relations, Marty Roustio.

Talley, who retired from the company on October 8, 2001, and has since sold his shares in the company for about $60 million, did not return phone calls for this story. In a deposition, Talley denied saying that women didn't belong in the business and stressed his belief that some of Rent-a-Center's female managers are "the best we have." As for 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 could have come from 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 twenty 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 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 August 17, 2001, Herndon said he was "distressed" by what appeared to be "a complete disregard" of the magistrate's order and demanded that the company pay the women's attorneys for the time they had 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."

The information 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 a reporter to speak with for this story, says just about the same thing. Shell, who has 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 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 November 1, 2001. But on October 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 approved the settlement there, it would 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 Kansas City's U.S. District Court Judge Ortrie Smith 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. 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 was set for March 6, 2002.

Under the terms of that settlement, women could have expected to receive anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 dollars each, depending on how long they had worked for the company. Rent-a-Center was not required to admit any wrongdoing, and the Kansas City plaintiffs' lawyers -- led by the firms of White, Allinder & Graham and Klamann & Hubbard -- could have walked 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 to his credit, Smith refused to approve that language. The 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. Smith initially denied their requests. 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 comment for this story, citing instructions from their lawyers; the lawyers did not return repeated calls.

Back in federal court in East St. Louis, Judge Herndon demanded an explanation from Rent-a-Center's lawyers. They insisted that Sedey, Ray and Schlichter had been 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 December 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 urging female employees to participate. The Kansas City lawyers did the same. On the other side, the EEOC and the lawyers in the East St. Louis case fought back, asking the women to opt out of the Kansas City settlement.

The EEOC blasted the proposed settlement. Harper said the relief was 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."

But on March 6, when the lawyers had been expected to converge in U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith's courtroom, the lights were dim and the doors were locked.

Rent-a-Center had blinked.

On February 28, Rent-a-Center's two top executives had huddled in Plano with EEOC lawyer Harper and St. Louis lawyers Sedey, Ray and Schlichter.

Chief executive officer Mark Speese and president Mitch Fadel defended the company's dearth of female workers, saying it was an unintended consequence of the company's recent 75-pound lifting requirement. But the plaintiffs' lawyers noted that St. Louis store manager Tammy Shell was on record as saying that women job-seekers didn't fill out applications after learning about the 75-pound lifting requirement. She had admitted to a reporter that she'd never actually tested any applicants to see whether they could lift 75 pounds and that workers probably didn't even need to be able to pick up that weight because lifting was done with hand-trucks and dollies.

By the end of the meeting, the Rent-a-Center execs agreed to scrap the earlier settlement and pay $47 million -- almost four times the amount they'd already agreed to pay in Kansas City.

Under the new agreement -- announced by the EEOC on March 7, the women plaintiffs -- employees, ex-employees and unsuccessful applicants -- were also able to extract from the company a number of precedent-setting conditions: Rent-a-Center agreed to fill 10 percent of job vacancies during the first fifteen months following the settlement with women who had been fired. It agreed to create a human-resources department. Quarterly reports must be filed for the next four years describing the company's steps to end discrimination, detail complaints and provide statistical information. Discrimination complaints will be decided by a court-appointed special master.

In a statement announcing the proposed settlement, Rent-a-Center president Fadel said, "While our track record of providing a nondiscriminatory workplace is strong, we believe the proposed settlement is in the best interest of Rent-a-Center given the costs and uncertainty of litigation."

Although the company officially denies wrongdoing, Speese and Fadel will appear in a company video stating that Rent-a-Center won't tolerate discriminatory behavior. Rent-a-Center will also try to find women to serve on its all-male board of directors.

The new settlement agreement, which must still be finalized by U.S. District Court Judge David R. Herndon in East St. Louis, covers 5,300 women. If approved, it will end the East St. Louis lawsuit as well as a separate EEOC action brought against the company in Memphis, Tennessee. It is also expected to supersede the Kansas City agreement.

Wilfong says Rent-a-Center "did the right thing by settling with us." And she's thrilled about the conditions being imposed on the company. "I'm glad that women have the option of going back if they want, and it's good there is going to be an HR department," she says. "I mean, that is just a normal thing that should have to be done."

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