Forever 21 has been slapped with what is sure to be a much talked about discrimination lawsuit this month. According to the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York by 22-year old Alexia Daskalakis, the fast fashion giant’s male supervisors insulted her and subjected her to bias because of her transgender identity. Daskalakis, who joined Forever 21 in a Brooklyn store in May 2011 and was soon promoted to visual merchandiser, began her transition in January 2014. Formerly known as Anthony, she began dressing in a more traditionally feminine manner and wearing makeup, and in August 2014, started taking hormones to physically transition. According to Daskalakis’ complaint, this is when her immediate supervisor, Patrick Walmsley, among other management-level employees, began treating her with “increasing contempt.” She claims her supervisors called her a “hot mess,” “useless,” and “disgusting,” told her that she looked “offensive,” and that “in my eyes and in the company’s eyes, you’re still a male.” On another occasion, one of the same managers told Daskalakis, “You used to be a hard worker when you were a guy, but not anymore.”
After complaining of months of harassment (to which Forever 21’s Human Resources department never responded), Daskalakis (pictured below) claims she was fired this past January 2015 without a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. Now, Daskalakis is suing the retailer for harassment, discrimination and retaliation under New York State Human Rights Law. According to her complaint, “[Forever 21] has discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, gender expression, gender identity and/or failure to conform to gender stereotypes in violation of the [New York State Human Rights Law] by denying [her] the same terms and conditions of employment available to other employees, up to and including the termination of her employment.”
Interestingly, Daskalakis is not suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals against employment discrimination on the bases of race and color, as well as national origin, sex, and religion. You may recall that Saks Fifth Avenue was named in a Title VII lawsuit for allegedly discriminating against a transgender employee. The upscale retailer subsequently moved to have the case dismissed, asserting that “transsexuals are not a protected class” under Title VII. While the Supreme Court has not yet determined whether Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination covers gender identity, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the government agency that enforces the federal employment discrimination laws in relation to private employers—filed its first-ever lawsuits to protect transgender workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act this past summer. Historically, Title VII does NOT protect employees against discrimination b/c of sexual preference or transexual/transgender status. It does, however, prohibit an employer from taking adverse actions because of the person’s non-conformance with sex-stereotypes.
Forever 21 has responded to the filing by saying that the company has “zero tolerance for discrimination.” Moreover, according to the statement from the Los Angeles-based brand: “At Forever 21, we are committed to diversity and inclusion in our stores and in all business related activities, and strive to maintain a safe and respectful work environment for all employees.”
Daskalakis is seeking unspecified money damages.
More to come, maybe. Chances are, though, this lawsuit will be settled as quickly and quietly as possible if Forever 21 can help it, as such bad press certainly doesn’t bode well at all for the brand’s image or its sales.