A judge ordered retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch to pay $115,000 for discriminating against a 14-year-old autistic customer at its Mall of America store.
The civil penalty, the largest of its kind in at least two years, came four years after store employees refused to let the autistic teen join her older sister in a fitting room because of the clothing chain's anti-shoplifting policy. The store refused to relent even after the sister, and later the girls' mother, explained that the 14-year-old couldn't be alone because of her disability.
The confrontation humiliated the girl, who testified that the incident made her feel like a "misfit."
"She was singled out and required to hear her sister and mother repeatedly ask for accommodations based on her disability, in front of a long line of customers, at a store that markets itself to young people as a purveyor of a particularly desirable 'look' " administrative law judge Kathleen D. Sheehy declared in her ruling.
When several complaints to the company were ignored, the girl's mother, Elizabeth Maxson of Apple Valley, took the case to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. The investigation encountered fierce resistance from Abercrombie & Fitch, a New Albany, Ohio-based company that posted $3.5 billion in revenues last year. The company even denied that the girl, identified only as M.M. in court documents, had a disability until the first day of the administrative law hearing in April. She was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 2.
In her ruling, Sheehy found that Abercrombie & Fitch violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act and ordered the company to pay the girl $25,000 for mental anguish and suffering. The company also was ordered to pay $25,000 to the state as a civil penalty, $41,069 in attorney's fees, $20,441 to the human rights department for its expenses and $3,753 in other expenses.
Abercrombie & Fitch also was ordered to post signs in its seven Minnesota store explaining that disabled individuals should seek out a sales associate to obtain an exception to the company's policy allowing only one person in the fitting room at a time. The company also must provide an hour of training for all employees in Minnesota who interact with the public to make sure they understand how to help disabled customers.
Abercrombie & Fitch has appealed the fine to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.