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Polo Ralph Lauren Sued by 4 Ex-Workers

They say the retailer broke labor laws and detained them in locked stores after hours.

May 31, 2006|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Four former employees accused Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. on Tuesday of labor-code violations, fraud and false imprisonment, saying the apparel seller failed to properly pay workers and detained them in stores after hours.

The former sales associates said they were kept after work in locked stores for as many as 30 minutes while their purses and bags were examined to make sure they weren't stealing. They were not paid for the time they were detained, the plaintiffs say.

"I missed a couple of trains having to wait for a manager to check me out," Northern California plaintiff Ann Otsuka, 23, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. The Mountain View, Calif., resident worked at the Palo Alto store for five months in 2004.

A spokeswoman for the New York-based retailer said it had not yet received the lawsuit.

"From what we understand about this complaint, we believe it is without merit and we will review it once it is received in our offices," she said.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court, also says the retailer required employees to work many "off-the-clock" hours and improperly calculated how much they should be paid.

The retailer manipulated payroll records to make it look like the employees worked fewer hours than they did, failed to pay overtime and denied or discouraged rest breaks, the lawsuit said.

Joseph Beachboard, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Los Angeles who represents employers, says it is not unreasonable for a company to search employees in stores after hours so long as workers aren't detained for long, especially if the retailer's goods are disappearing.

"If there's a problem an employer is experiencing in terms of lost or stolen merchandise, companies are going to look to try to control that," he said. Five minutes would seem reasonable, but a half-hour might not, he said.

Otsuka and Corinne Phipps, a plaintiff who worked in the San Francisco store, said that workers were detained five minutes to 30 minutes and that the typical delay was about 15 minutes.

Otsuka said she quit after her employer failed to pay her an appropriate commission. Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, are Janis Keefe and Justin Kiser, both of whom also worked in the San Francisco store.

The plaintiffs are seeking unpaid wages, penalties and unspecified punitive damages.

Patrick R. Kitchin, one of two San Francisco attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said another claim was pending against Polo Ralph Lauren, which operates seven stores and 17 outlets in California. In that case, he said, the company has agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a claim that it forced employees to wear Polo clothes as a work uniform.

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