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December 21, 2016

New Jersey sues Rent-A-Center over manager's alleged slurs

Lawsuits Discrimination
122116_NJRentacenter M.O. Stephens/Creative Commons

Rent-A-Center, based in Plano, Tx., operates a total of 2,600 “rent-to-own” stores throughout the United States, including 40 in New Jersey.

A discrimination complaint filed Wednesday by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office alleges that Rent-A-Center, the Texas-based "rent-to-own" company, employed a manager who used racial slurs to refer to employees at two different store locations.

The complaint, filed in Superior Court in Camden County, claims that Rent-A-Center unlawfully discriminated by failing to prevent and remedy racially hostile conduct at its stores in Pennsauken.

Prosecutors say an assistant manager used the n-word while speaking to African-American co-workers at the Federal Street location. One of them reported the alleged incident to a district manager and the corporate office, eventually resulting in the assistant manager's transfer to the second Pennsauken location following an internal inquiry.

The assistant manager, identified as Christina Martinez, allegedly continued to use the n-word when speaking to co-workers at the Crescent Boulevard store.

“If proven to be true, these allegations are an outrageous example of this company’s failure to stand up against racial bias,” said Attorney General Christopher Porrino. “No one should be subjected to even one utterance of the slur referenced in this case, let alone a steady diet of it, which is what allegedly took place within this national retail organization according to our complaint. We contend that in circumstances such as those alleged here, an employer must stand up for its workers to stamp out a racially hostile work environment."

The lawsuit describes a culture of intolerance for the n-word at the two Pennsauken stores.

“New Jersey’s anti-discrimination statute is not limited to addressing allegations of tangible economic loss such as discriminatory promotions or firings,” said Division Director Craig T. Sashihara. “Our law also protects employees from being harassed in the workplace on the basis of immutable characteristics such as race, gender and sexual orientation.“

Investigators said the man who initially brought the matter to the company was targeted by Martinez' comments after a disagreement over the handling of a customer. While Rent-A-Center considered her conduct "unprofessional" and gave her "corrective coaching," testimony from one of the company's employees suggested that the language Martinez used is generally accepted "because we are like family."

Rent-A-Center has denied allegations that Martinez, who is still employed by the company, used the n-word at the Cresecent Boulevard location. Investigators obtained an internal company report, however, that allegedly substantiated the claims.

The complaint seeks a court order that will require Rent-A-Center to submit to training and monitoring for two years, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.