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"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.