By Michelle Graff
Buffalo, N.Y.--A federal magistrate judge has recommended dismissal of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s (EEOC) claim of nationwide sex discrimination by Sterling Jewelers Inc., parent company of Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry.

The ruling, handed down Thursday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy, is the latest turn in a legal battle between Sterling and the EEOC that stretches back five years.

The EEOC first filed suit against the country’s largest specialty jeweler in September 2008 after 19 former female Sterling employees who worked at stores in New York, Florida, California, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Indiana and Texas filed charges with the EEOC against Sterling on their behalf and the behalf of similarly situated employees.

In its suit, the EEOC accused Sterling of having a nationwide pattern of discriminating against women when it came to pay and promotion.

The court’s ruling, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, states that the EEOC failed to provide evidence that it conducted a thorough, nationwide investigation of Sterling’s employment practices prior to filing the lawsuit.

“The only nationwide data specifically identified by the EEOC is Dr. [Louis] Lanier’s (an expert hired by the claimants) statistical analysis, and, having invoked privilege in response to Sterling’s inquiries in discovery, the EEOC cannot now be allowed to argue that this was the analysis referred to in its Letter of Determination, or that it took any steps to verify the reliability of that analysis,” court papers state. “Absent such proof, there is no evidence that its investigation was nationwide.”

The EEOC has until Jan. 21 to object and seek review by District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara, according to the order.

Nora Curtin, a New York-based attorney with the EEOC, said the commission is evaluating its options in light of McCarthy’s recommendation.

In an emailed statement, Sterling Jewelers notes that there are likely to be additional procedural issues and rulings in the future, in this case and a separate federal case involving essentially the same women also accusing the retailer of gender discrimination.

That case, filed in March 2008, is pending in arbitration, and the women involved have asked to pursue their claims as a class action. A hearing on this motion is set for Feb. 5.

“We want to reiterate that we take the allegations raised in both lawsuits very seriously. We are confident that these charges do not reflect the culture of this company. Fairness, opportunity, integrity and respect are core values at Sterling,” the statement reads.

Sterling said it investigated the women’s claims of gender discrimination when the issue first arose and the investigation failed to substantiate the allegations. “Therefore,” the company said, “we do not believe these charges are valid.  We will defend ourselves vigorously against such allegations.”

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