The Supreme Court on Monday issued a decision with wide-ranging implications. In Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Betty Dukes et al., the largest class-action suit in U.S. history, the court found that there was not significant proof that the company operated under a general policy of discrimination.
The plaintiffs in the case claimed that Wal-Mart managers favored men when it came to pay and promotions. In 2001, six current and former employees filed a class action lawsuit. In 2004, a national class was certified that included all women who worked at Wal-Mart stores since December 26, 1998,.
The court’s ruling on Monday also found that there was not enough “glue holding together the alleged reasons” for millions of employment decisions. Therefore, there was no “class” that would justify the class-action suit filed by more than 1 million female employees.
Further, the court indicated that Wal-Mart’s announced policy forbids sex discrimination and the company has penalties for denials of equal opportunity. The respondents’ only evidence of general discrimination, the ruling said, was a sociologist’s analysis that said Wal-Mart’s corporate culture made it vulnerable to gender bias. The sociologist could not estimate what percentage of Wal-Mart’s employment decisions might be determined by “stereotypical thinking.”
The attorney for the plaintiffs indicated that thousands of individual claims could still be filed later in the year. They may try to formulate one or more smaller classes, where there is “substantial evidence of a policy of discrimination.”
The Wal-Mart decision sets forth new parameters for the way class action suits will be structured and litigated. In effect, each member of the class must be able to tell their story on the stand and it must be the same story for everyone else.
Wal-Mart and its supporters, including DuPont and Intel, said that such class actions can subject them to billion-dollar judgments and must be limited by rules governing who can join together to form a class.
The National Women’s Law Center said the decision was “devastating” and female workers everywhere will now face a “far steeper road to challenge and correct pay and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.”