In the nine years since Marie “Micki” Wolf and nearly a dozen other women filed an arbitration case against Sterling Jewelers, she was barred from talking openly about her claims of pay disparities and gender discrimination.
The rules for the women’s case in private arbitration, where filings and proceedings are largely confidential, also blocked Wolf from seeing what other women in her case were saying in their own allegations — including claims of sexual harassment involving male managers.
The release this week of those women’s sworn statements, part of a sweeping class-action case involving 69,000 women alleging pay and promotion discrimination at the owner of Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, brought Wolf a long-awaited relief that she could finally share her story, she said.
“All these years, I wasn’t allowed to tell people what they did to me. I had to keep my mouth shut,” Wolf said. “It was kind of sad. People would have to come to me discreetly in the stores, like, ‘Can I tell you my story?’ ”
Wolf’s silence was mandated by the private arbitration. Unlike the legal system, where most court records are presumed to be public, sworn statements such as those filed by women in the Sterling case are almost always kept confidential.
The Sterling arbitration case will decide whether women faced discrimination in pay and promotion practices.
In hundreds of now-public sworn statements from members of the class, men and women also allege widespread sexual harassment and discrimination that they say fostered a demeaning culture for Sterling’s female employees.
Sterling’s parent company, Signet Jewelers, issued a statement saying the company has “taken the allegations of pay and promotions discrimination raised in this case very seriously.”
The allegations “involve a very small number of individuals,” the company said, and “the distorted and inaccurate picture of our company presented in these allegations does not represent who we are.”
In arbitration, both sides agree to resolve a dispute outside the public courts and under the ruling of an independent arbitrator. Companies have called it a more streamlined dispute-resolution system that can allow parties with equal bargaining power to resolve cases with fewer delays.
Many employees and consumers agree to arbitration without realizing it when they sign up for a job or a new credit card. Those arbitration clauses prevent them from taking the company to the court when a dispute arises.
Critics say this system is preferred by companies because it offers an avenue in which disputes are blocked from public view.
“For most corporations the whole point of having an arbitration clause is preventing information from coming out,” said F. Paul Bland Jr., the executive director for the law firm Public Justice, which litigates some gender discrimination cases.
Wolf, 49, said she joined Sterling in 2002 and loved her job selling diamonds, putting in long hours and securing what she said was consistently one of her store’s top sales performances, with more than $1 million in jewelry sales a year.
But she was “crushed,” she said, when she learned that other men in the store with less experience and fewer sales were routinely paid more money and not subjected to other examples she saw of gender discrimination.
In 2008, Wolf and roughly a dozen other women filed their case. In 2013, their attorneys filed a motion seeking class-action status for a group of women, now numbering more than 69,000, with similar pay-and-promotion discrimination claims.
Wolf said she spent years disheartened because she could not share her own story. As she saw sexual harassment cases such as former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s now-settled lawsuit make the news, she felt she had no similar recourse — even as other Sterling employees told her privately of their own allegations.
“This was a company that was supposed to be all about the women. But yet they didn’t respect women: the way they talked to them, the way they paid them,” Wolf said.
After years of requests from employees’ attorneys and The Washington Post to make the records publicly viewable, attorneys for Sterling and the employees agreed to redact parts of the records, including the names of managers accused of harassment, and then make them publicly available this week.
“We have 69,000 women who have a right to know what evidence was submitted in support of their claim,” said Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein law firm and lead counsel for the case. “If we had been unsuccessful in getting these statements released, the public, and particularly our clients, would have no idea what evidence we had submitted.”
Dawn Souto-Coons, one of the original dozen women to file the arbitration, was in tears when she was able to read some of the statements this week. The former Sterling employee, now an egg farmer in Maryland, said she could not believe how long the case had lasted and how long she had gone on without knowing what other women had faced.
Souto-Coons, 58, said she feels encouraged knowing that she is not alone and that women’s stories are finally being told. She said she hopes the newly public allegations will help persuade the company to implement new protections for women facing discrimination.
“We didn’t want this just to be a slap on the wrist: Give us some cash and we’ll go on our way. We wanted them to make changes,” Souto-Coons said. “I always knew I would never give up. I always knew that no matter how long it took, I would stay with it.”
The case could still go on for many months. A class hearing, during which witnesses will be called to testify before the arbitration judge for the first time, is scheduled for early next year.
But Wolf said she is ready to speak her mind before the arbitrator — and for other women’s stories to be told.
“I will feel so much better when I can sit down in front of a judge and tell her my story,” Wolf said. “I’m excited. These women are finally saying, ‘No, you can’t do this to us.’ ”