Four years after Abercrombie & Fitch refused to let a teenager help her autistic sister try on clothes at its Mall of America store, state officials have fined the company $115,264 for discriminating against a disabled person.
The hefty penalty from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights pleased the Maxson family of Apple Valley, which was forced to push hard for satisfaction after the retailing giant refused to apologize for the incident and even questioned whether the girl was disabled. The fine was levied in June but made public this month.
Michael K. Browne, the department's legal affairs manager, said the size of the penalty is the largest in at least two years. The amount reflects his agency's effort to prevent future discrimination of this kind, as well as the cost of litigation forced by the "pushback" from Abercrombie & Fitch. "We don't want anything that happened in this case to repeat itself," Browne said.
Molly Maxson, then 14, was with her older sister on a back-to-school shopping trip in August 2005 when a store employee told them they couldn't both enter the fitting room because of store policy aimed at preventing shoplifting. The store refused to relent even after the sister, and later the girls' mother, explained that Molly couldn't be alone because of her disability.
The confrontation humiliated the girl, who told a psychologist hired by Abercrombie & Fitch 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, Beth Maxson of Apple Valley, took the case to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
The investigation encountered strong resistance from Abercrombie & Fitch. The retailer, based in New Albany, Ohio, posted $3.5 billion in sales last year and has been the target of several discrimination lawsuits. In 2004, the company agreed to pay $40 million and set up a diversity program to settle a class-action suit charging the company with discrimination in hiring and employment. The suit had accused Abercrombie & Fitch of excluding minorities from its sales floors and adopting a virtually all-white marketing campaign. The company admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to new policies to promote diversity.
In the Maxson case, the company denied that the girl suffered from a disability until the first day of an administrative law hearing in April. She was diagnosed as autistic at age 2.
In her ruling, Sheehy concluded that Abercrombie & Fitch violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act and ordered the company to pay the girl $25,000 and cover the family's attorney fees of $41,069. The company had to pay the state a $25,000 fine and cover other expenses totaling $24,194.
Abercrombie & Fitch also was ordered to post signs in its seven Minnesota store explaining that disabled individuals should seek out a sales associate if they need 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.
A spokesman for Abercrombie & Fitch did not have an immediate response Tuesday afternoon to the state's action.
The judge found that the store policy allowed fitting room employees to accommodate disabled shoppers, but that employees interpreted that to mean people with visible handicaps.
Abercrombie & Fitch isn't challenging the findings of fact in the case, but the company has appealed the penalties and corrective measures, Browne said. Sheehy denied the company's request to lower the attorney fees, finding that Abercrombie & Fitch "transformed this case from a relatively simple matter into the expensive proceeding it has become."
In an interview Tuesday, Brittany Maxson, now 21, said that the 2005 shopping trip was supposed to be an occasion for Molly to find clothes that would allow her to fit in better with other kids at school.
"Because of her autism, she's very vulnerable," Brittany said Tuesday. "In social situations, everything is new to her. It's very unpredictable how she'll act. ... We've never left her alone, even at home. We never let her go anywhere by herself. We've always kept a close eye on her."
As the sisters went from store to store in the Mall of America, a clerk at another store also questioned the girls when they entered a fitting room together, but consented immediately when informed of the girl's disability, Brittany said. But at Abercrombie & Fitch, store employees would not budge, even after the mother called the company's customer service hotline.
In its legal battle, the company challenged the family's claim that Molly was disabled, requesting medical and school records and subjecting the girl to an interview with a forensic psychologist, her mother said. Molly told the psychologist that the incident made her feel "bad" and "scared," and that she never wanted to shop there again.
"I am a misfit at Abercrombie," she told the psychologist.
Molly's mother said she's "very thankful" that the state took the actions it did to enforce the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
"I refuse to have a belief that this law has no meaning," Beth Maxson said. "We're going to continue to move forward, hoping this never happens to anyone again."
James Eli Shiffer • 612-673-4271 Jane Friedmann • 612-673-7852