Jewelry giant settles gender-discrimination lawsuit for $175 million

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Sterling Jewelers, the American diamond empire that owns Jared and Kay Jewelers, has agreed to pay $175 million to settle a long-fought class-action lawsuit alleging that the company had for years discriminated against tens of thousands of women in their pay and promotion practices.

The case, filed in 2008, became a hallmark of #MeToo activism after some of the women revealed to The Washington Post in 2017 that they had been pressured to cater to their bosses’ sexual demands to get promoted or stay employed.

The class was composed of about 68,000 women who had worked, mostly as sales associates, in the jewelry stores between 2004 and 2018. Their lawyers argued that the company’s rules on pay rates adversely affected women and that women got promotions far less often than they deserved.

A trial in private arbitration was scheduled for this September, said the women’s lawyers, who announced the settlement Thursday. The lawsuit has faced so many years of delays that one of the case’s 15 named claimants passed away before it was resolved.

Sterling runs some of the country’s biggest retail jewelry chains and has for years been famous for its shopping-mall boutiques and TV ads, including “Every kiss begins with Kay.”

The suit’s claims were limited to sexual discrimination in pay and promotion, not sexual harassment or assault. But as part of the case, women filed sworn statements saying they had been regularly groped, harassed and coaxed into providing sexual favors, including at boozy corporate retreats.

“If you didn’t do what he wanted with him,” one former associate said in a 2012 statement, “you wouldn’t get your (preferred) store or raise.”

Hundreds allege sex harassment, discrimination at Kay and Jared jewelry company

Gina Drosos, who replaced Mark Light as chief executive of Sterling’s parent company Signet Jewelers shortly after The Post’s 2017 report, said in a statement that the company has for the past four years worked to transform the company’s “business model and culture” to create a “welcoming and inclusive environment where everyone is invited to be their authentic self.”

“This settlement is an important step in bringing closure to a nearly 15-year-old case,” she said. “We look forward to continuing our focus on diversity as an important business strategy for Signet, and propelling the innovation, growth, and opportunity that allows our team and company to shine.”

The plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Joseph Sellers of the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said the legal team had seen no evidence that the misconduct women had spoken of in their previous statements had happened in recent years since the company had announced a series of reforms.

Signet, which did not admit liability as part of the settlement, said it has discontinued the pay and promotion practices at the heart of the suit. The company said it now also offers mentorship and leadership training programs for women and has strengthened a system for reporting and investigating complaints of workplace abuse.

Sellers said in an interview that the settlement would “ensure the practices that gave rise to the case are never going to happen again” at the company.

Sterling discrimination case highlights differences between arbitration, litigation

The settlement, which is subject to approval by an arbitrator, would pay about $125 million to members of the class. The remainder will go to attorneys’ fees and costs.

The case also threw a spotlight on the then-widespread corporate rules that forced victims of sexual harassment or assault to file claims against their employers only in private arbitration, where the proceedings were largely confidential.

President Biden in March signed into law a bill ending forced arbitration in such cases, allowing survivors to file lawsuits in public courts.

Signet in 2020 agreed to a separate $240 million settlement resolving claims from shareholders accusing the company of concealing allegations of sexual harassment related to top executives.

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