Monday, June 20, 2011

Wal-Mart Women Workers Denied Discrimination Class Action by the US Supreme Court

20 June 2011
Last updated at 12:17 ET

Wal-Mart women denied discrimination class action

Betty Dukes and plaintiff Christine Kwapnoski were two of the named plaintiffs in the case

The US Supreme Court has ruled that a group of women claiming discrimination against US retail giant Wal-Mart may not seek a class action lawsuit.

The court ruled that women who said they were paid less because of their gender must pursue legal action individually.

Plaintiffs had sought to unite more than a million women in their effort.

Wal-Mart denied the accusation and said female employees across the US had no grounds for a class action.

'Literally millions'

On Monday, the court overturned a ruling by a lower appeals court that 1.5 million women who had worked at Wal-Mart retail stores could unite in the class action suit.

The women, led by a group of named plaintiffs, sought back pay and punitive damages for the class of women, saying the company passed female employees over for promotion and paid them less.

Walmart by numbers

--2.1m workers worldwide - the largest private employer in the world
--869,000 female employees, at present
--$11.75 average hourly wage
--4,300 supermarkets in USA
--Three women board members
--Walmart is active in 17 countries - in the UK it owns Asda

Their suit relied on statistical evidence about pay disparities between male and female employees and anecdotal reports of individual cases of discrimination.

The court ruled that the women could not show common "questions or law or fact" that held for all the women in the proposed class (any woman who has worked for one of more than 3,400 Wal-Mart stores in the US since December 1998).

"Here, [the group of women employees] wish to sue about literally millions of employment decisions at once," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.

"Without some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members' claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question 'why was I disfavoured.'"

Mr Scalia also noted that Wal-Mart's written policy did not allow gender discrimination, and did not have any testing procedure or evaluation method that could be shown to be biased.

Management disparity

In a dissenting opinion, the court's four liberal justices agreed the Wal-Mart case did not merit a class action, but would have taken a less narrow view of the requirements for a class action suit over back pay.

"The dissenters... are more favourably inclined to class action lawsuits," Tom Goldstein, who has argued 24 cases before the Supreme Court, told the BBC.

"They would not close the door to big suits like this so easily, whereas the majority is very concerned about the company's ability to defend itself against each employee."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissent, noted that 70% of positions paid by the hour in the retailers' stores are women, but that women hold only 33% of management roles.

"The plaintiffs' evidence, including class members' tales of their own experiences, suggests that gender bias suffused Wal-Mart's company culture," Ms Ginsburg wrote.

She was joined by the two other women on the court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan, and Justice Stephen Breyer.

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