Monday, December 6, 2010

Supreme Court to Hear Wal-Mart Bias Case

The Supreme Court has agreed to entertain an appeal in what has been labeled the biggest employment discrimination case in the nation’s history. The case, Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, involves claims that Wal-Mart discriminated against hundreds of thousands of women in pay and promotion. The lawsuit seeks back pay that could amount to billions of dollars. The question before the court is not whether there was discrimination but rather whether the claims by the individual employees may be combined as a class action. Wal-Mart, which says its policies expressly bar discrimination and promote diversity, said the plaintiffs, who worked in 3,400 different stores in 170 job classifications, cannot possibly have enough in common to make class-action treatment appropriate.

In April, an 11-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled by a 6-to-5 vote that the class action could go forward. Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, writing for the majority, said the company’s policies and treatment of women were similar enough that a single lawsuit was both efficient and appropriate. He added that the six women who represent the class, four of whom had left Wal-Mart, had claims typical of the other plaintiffs. The size of the proposed class was not an obstacle, Judge Susan P. Graber wrote in a concurrence. “If the employer had 500 female employees, I doubt that any of my colleagues would question the certification of such a class,” Judge Graber wrote. “Certification does not become an abuse of discretion merely because the class has 500,000 members.” That drew a sharp dissent from Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. “Maybe there’d be no difference between 500 employees and 500,000 employees if they all had similar jobs, worked at the same half-billion square foot store and were supervised by the same managers,” he wrote. “But the half-million members of the majority’s approved class held a multitude of jobs, at different levels of Wal-Mart’s hierarchy, for variable lengths of time, in 3,400 stores, sprinkled across 50 states, with a kaleidoscope of supervisors (male and female).” “They have little in common but their sex and this lawsuit,” Judge Kozinski concluded. In a second dissent, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta said that allowing the case to go forward as a class action would prevent Wal-Mart from presenting tailored defenses to individual claims.