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Saks Fifth Avenue accused of race and age discrimination in lawsuit

One black employee said a colleague "accused him of speaking 'ghetto' and 'Ebonics,' and told him he needed to refrain from doing so."
Image: U.S. flags fly outside of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York
Eight men in a lawsuit say they were subject to unlawful age and/or race discrimination at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

Eight men, the majority of whom are older and black, say they were subject to age and race discrimination while employed at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City, alleging in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that they couldn't advance because of a "glass ceiling" for people of color.

The ex-employees, who are represented by the Cochran Firm, worked at the high-end department store's flagship location in midtown Manhattan. Some of them were hired back in 2010 and 2011, and were placed in sales in the men's department with "limited customer traffic and far removed from the department's front entrance" — putting them at a disadvantage, according to the suit.

"Although they were each committed to maintaining SAKS' reputation as a luxury retailer by providing stellar customer service, their respective managers deliberately targeted them because of their race and/or age," said the suit, filed in state Supreme Court in Bronx County.

Canada-based Hudson's Bay Company, which took over operations of the Saks brand in 2013, said Tuesday that it does not comment on pending litigation, although "we take these allegations seriously as we are committed to diversity and inclusion across our organization."

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Cochran attorney Derek Sells said a lack of black employees in senior management positions was "very disturbing and it needs to change."

One of the plaintiffs, Derick Longley, who is black, joined the store in August 2016 and was a sales associate for Ralph Lauren's Purple Label.

Longley said one of his colleagues, a "brand ambassador" for Ralph Lauren, "accused him of speaking 'ghetto' and 'Ebonics'" to black customers, and "told him he needed to refrain from doing so." In addition, Longley said, that same colleague hindered him from advancing as a brand ambassador at Saks, "claiming that he did not have the 'look' clearly referring to the fact that he is African-American."

Longley said he "excelled" at his job and surpassed his sales goal of $300,000 within the first six months of hiring, but was still subjected to a hostile work environment that included another sales associate yelling at him while he was engaged in a potential sale of an $80,000 bag.

"None of Plaintiff Longley's similarly-situated Caucasian counterparts were treated in this fashion," according to the suit. Longley was later terminated in September 2017.

Another black employee, Kenneth Taylor, 55, was hired in July 2017 and said the director of Saks' men's luxury collections continually singled him out and berated him. Taylor said he was having a meeting with a manager with Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian fashion house, when the director told the manager "he was wasting his time on Plaintiff Taylor because he was not going to remember anything," according to the suit.

Taylor, however, said he was a competent sales associate, having "just sold an $8,000 suit and completed a $12,000 sale in another department."

Another black plaintiff, Nixson McCray, 57, said despite racking up nearly $700,000 in sales each year after he was hired in 2014, one selling director would "falsely accuse him of engaging in unprofessional conduct."

The director "mocked him and would condescendingly comment: 'You think you are a professional?'" the suit said, adding that white employees were not treated similarly.

It wasn't only older minority employees who said they suffered discrimination.

Two white employees, ages 68 and 70, said their younger counterparts were helped by supervisors, and despite keeping up their sales, they were "set up for failure" and unjustly terminated.

In addition, two of the eight plaintiffs are Hispanic. In the suit, one of the men, Pablo Orozco, 54, accused managers of making false accusations against him, including that a customer complained that Orozco had touched him inappropriately in a dressing room.

Black plaintiff Charles Blocker, 60, said at the news conference that working conditions at the store became increasingly "tense" after Hudson's Bay took over and he went through "at least six or seven managers within a year."

Saks has been at the center of past complaints of discrimination.

In 2016, five former female servers at the restaurants located within the flagship store in New York sued claiming women over the age of 40 were unfairly terminated in favor of younger, more attractive male servers, reported the New York Daily News. Saks, which had been leasing out its restaurant operations, declined to comment at the time.

A year earlier, Saks settled a lawsuit with a transgender employee at its Houston store who claimed she was harassed by male colleagues who repeatedly asked if she was a prostitute.