Abercrombie Sued by Former Employee

The popular U.S. clothing retailer defends employment practices, again.

June 24, 2009, 10:12 AM

June 24, 2009 -- Riam Dean's mother, May, never let her daughter use her prosthetic arm as an excuse. Quite the opposite. May Dean insisted that her daughter's disability have no bearing whatsoever on her day-to-day life.

"We've always brought her up equal to her siblings," Dean said, "and she believes she can do anything by herself."

At 22, Riam Dean of London, is already well-accomplished. A law student at the University of London, Dean has honored her parents' wishes not only with her achievements but also -- and more importantly, her mother says -- by maintaining a strong drive and sense of self-esteem.

"My daughter is a firm believer that it is ability, not disability, which counts," she said.

Now, though, Riam Dean's belief is being tested.

She is suing her former employer in London, Abercrombie & Fitch, for discrimination, alleging that her manager at the company's London flagship store moved her off the main floor because of her prosthetic arm.

New Albany, Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch released a statement refuting Dean's story, noting that the company "is committed to providing a supportive and dignified environment for all of its employees."

Dean claims in an affidavit that the ordeal had such a severe emotional effect on her, and left her confidence and self-esteem so thoroughly shaken, that she felt stymied by her disability for the first time in her life.

"My achievements and triumphs in life were brought right down to that moment where I realized that I was unacceptable to my employer because of how I looked," Dean, who was born with no left forearm, said in the statement.

"I just wasn't the same person."

Her employment tribunal started today, and she's seeking about $41,000 in damages.

Dean says in the affidavit that her trouble with Abercrombie & Fitch began almost right from the start.

Dean says that at a May 2008 orientation for new employees, she asked a member of Abercrombie's corporate staff for permission to wear a medical sock over her arm. The corporate employee told her that she should instead wear a white cardigan, even though Abercrombie & Fitch employees are supposed to wear T-shirts during the summer months.

After the conversation, Dean, who declined to speak with ABC News, figured the issue had been settled.

A&F's 'Look Policy' at Issue

Word of the agreement, however, did not filter through the proper chain of command, Dean alleges, as several of the store's employees, including Dean's manager, remained unaware of the reason for the sartorial breach and badgered Dean about it "on numerous occasions on different shifts," she said.

On July 4, 2008, the day of the incident, Dean claims her manager told her to move to the stockroom, repeating to her that she was violating the company's dress code. According to the affidavit, Dean's cardigan was in violation of the company's "look policy," which stipulates how employees should present themselves. When Dean inquired about the reason for her removal from the main floor, she says she was met with a combative response.

"[The manager's] only answer was, 'take it off and I'll put you back on the shop floor,'" Dean said in the statement.

Dean says she viewed the offer as exploitative. "They did not allow visible tattoos or heavy makeup," she said, "So did they really want to see my prosthetic arm? They did not."

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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