Abercrombie Sued by Former Employee

After finishing her shift that day, Dean says she lodged a formal complaint with Abercrombie & Fitch's corporate office, and then corresponded via e-mail with one of her supervisors, who told her that she was supposed to have worked in the stockroom from the beginning.

"I was disgusted to learn that they had twisted the story to 'you were erroneously placed on the shop floor,'" she said.

Unwilling to continue working under what she says was a prejudiced condition, Dean left Abercrombie & Fitch for good, after about two months.

"I swiftly received a short e-mail simply dating my date of departure, nothing more said," Dean said. "I had been bullied out of my job."

For Abercrombie & Fitch, Dean's lawsuit isn't the first time the company has had to defend itself against discrimination allegations made by former employees.

The fashion retailer has long marketed itself as an iconic U.S. company: The company's founding year, 1892, is emblazoned across many of its clothing articles and, more contentiously, many of its stores' employees, like the models that grace its bags and walls, are young, attractive and white.

All-American Image Raises Concerns

According to Randy Schmidt, clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago, Abercrombie & Fitch's legal problems arise from the "all-American" image the company tries to cultivate.

"By my understanding of what the "all-American image is, it's basically white," Schmidt said, "and by trying to have that image by having the [employees] fit that image, you set yourself up for these cases."

But there's nothing illegal about the company's attempt to manipulate its image, said Philip K. Davidoff, a partner at Ford & Harrison, who deals with discrimination cases.

"There's nothing that prohibits discrimination against ugly people," Davidoff said. "[Abercrombie] wants to have people out on the floor who project a certain image, and that kind of public perception is closely related to their business model."

Still, Davidoff cautions, this kind of practice can make a company a lightning rod for discrimination allegations like Dean's.

"Yes, they can try to set policies on dress and grooming and appearances that foster the image they're trying to portray. But by doing that very clearly they run a serious risk that those policies will be a) misinterpreted by people on the ground, or b) even if they're not misinterpreted, running afoul of some of these anti discrimination laws."

In 2004, the company spent $50 million to settle a number of employment discrimination lawsuits in the United States. It also agreed to take greater steps to diversify its work force.

Despite the changes, there may yet be a more fundamental problem for Abercrombie & Fitch, Schmidt said.

"You put people in the back or front based not on skill but on a look and, yeah, you're setting yourself up [for lawsuits]."

With Dean and her lawyers set to go to court this week, Abercrombie & Fitch will soon learn whether it will again have to pay a price -- literally -- for its image. As for the prognosis, Schmidt said it's not good.

Image or Skills?

"I always think the plaintiff has a pretty good chance when employers make decisions based on image and not on skills," he said.

ABC News' Alaena Hostetter contributed to this story.

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