Judge OKs $47 million settlement in class-action discrimination

Saturday, October 5, 2002

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- After a nationwide rent-to-own company changed hands in 1998, female employees were demoted, fired, made to work in high-crime inner-city store locations, and subjected to "intrusive tests" about sex, religion and personal bathroom habits.

It was all part of a strategy to get rid of them, company managers had testified.

On Friday, some of those women, lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Texas-based Rent-A-Center Inc., locked hands in the back of a federal court room and beamed as a judge approved a $47 million settlement in their landmark case.

"There is a God!" said Toni Cohen, who had worked five years at St. Louis-area stores before being fired.

Teia Malone of Belleville, Ill., who had worked in East St. Louis-area stores, said she was happy for the plaintiffs as well as other women who could now achieve their career goals with the company.

U.S. District Judge David Herndon, pronouncing the settlement an "extraordinary result," heaped praise on the plaintiffs for their courage, private and federal lawyers for their "incredible effort" finding thousands of plaintiffs, and the company for its dramatic turnaround in corporate culture.

"It required an epiphany on their part," Herndon said of the company based in Plano, Texas. "They learned it's a different world out there. ... a sea change in corporate thinking."

Under the settlement, Rent-A-Center will pay $47 million to more than 5,000 women and make sweeping changes to its employment practices in settling two sex-discrimination lawsuits emanating from federal courts in East St. Louis, and Memphis, Tenn. A third case out of Kansas City, Mo., was subsumed in this settlement.

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