Berkeley’s Impact Fund Sues Big Box Retailer By JAKOB SCHILLER

Friday August 20, 2004

Brad Seligman and the Berkeley-based Impact Fund are at it again. Only two months after winning a decision that created the largest class action lawsuit of all time in a case against Wal-Mart, Seligman helped file a lawsuit in a Federal District court Tuesday against the warehouse giant Costco Wholesale Corp., alleging sexual discrimination against female employees. 

At a San Francisco news conference, Seligman and two co-counsels sat by Shirley Ellis, the only named plaintiff in the suit, who detailed a six-year history of being passed over for promotion after promotion in favor of her male co-workers. Ellis’ case is not unique, said her lawyers, in a company where 50 percent of the workforce are women but only 17 percent of its top managers are women. 

“This is not a situation in which there is one individual woman with unique circumstances,” said Bill Lann Lee, co-counsel and a partner with Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP. 

Lawyers estimate that more than 600 other women would be covered if the case is granted class action status. They do not know when the judge will decide, but estimate that it could take up to a year. 

In the meantime, Costco which is based in Issaquah, Wash., responded with a prepared statement, saying “We strongly disagree with any claim that Costco has discriminated against individual or group of employees, and we will respond to this particular claim in the proper form.” 

The complaint deals with promotions to upper level positions in particular. Ellis alleges that the company has created a “non-system” where women who are interested in pursuing high level promotions have run into a glass ceiling, because there is no meaningful promotion process nor any published promotion criteria for the upper level jobs. In a press release, the Impact Fund said the promotion “non-system” system has allowed discrimination to “flourish.”  

Over her six years as an assistant general store manager, said Ellis, she didn’t find out about promotion opportunities until they were already filled. 

Ellis, who works in a store in Denver, Colorado, took a pay cut to come to Costco because she said she was told she would be promoted within a year. She currently makes around $70,000 a year, less than she used to make as a general manager at Sam’s Club, another warehouse company. She was willing to take the cut, she said, because Costco GMs start at around $100,000 and receive valuable stock options and bonuses.  

Ellis said she told Costco during her efforts to secure a GM job that she would be willing to travel anywhere in the country. Instead, she said, she was transferred to the store farthest from her house in Denver, with a multi-hour commute, as part of what she alleges is a reprisal for initially filing a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing . 

According to the complaint, Costco operates 433 warehouses worldwide, with more than 300 in the United States and “at least 100” warehouses in California. Worldwide, Costco employs 103,000 people with more than 78,000 of them in the United States.