Wal-Mart goes to trial
Federal judge approves largest class-action discrimination suit against largest US retailer.
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She adds: "One of the concerns in the case is that this includes all of the Wal-Mart companies, which may include other related companies. And the argument is these are not monolithically managed, so it's really difficult to lump them all together."Skip to next paragraph
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US District Judge Martin Jenkins in San Francisco took nine months to decide whether to expand the lawsuit to include virtually all women who work or have worked at Wal-Mart. In a hearing last September, company attorneys urged Jenkins to allow so-called mini-class action lawsuits targeting each outlet.
Jenkins ruled that a 1964 congressional act passed during the civil rights movement prohibits sex discrimination and that giant corporations are not immune.
In addition, the judge said, the plaintiffs presented sufficient anecdotal evidence to warrant a class-action trial.
Judge Jenkins cited "statistics which show that women working at Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region ... that the salary gap widens over time."
Wal-Mart, for its part, said it is not commenting on the case but issued a statement. "Let's keep in mind that today's ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case. Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action. We strongly disagree with his decision and will seek an appeal. While we cannot comment on the specifics of the litigation, we can say we continue to evaluate our employment practices. For example, earlier this month Wal-Mart announced a new job classification and pay structure for hourly associates. This new pay plan was developed with the assistance of third-party consultants and is designed to ensure internal equity and external competitiveness."
Plaintiffs, however, believe their case is strong. "Guys walking in the door made more money than I did," says Christine Kwapnoski, a plaintiff. "There have been a ton of guys promoted over me time and time again... I've been tempted to quit a few times. But I know I can stick it out."
Wal-Mart may face yet other class-action suits as well. Lawyers are now working on a case involving overnight janitors and restockers who have been locked in the stores overnight. That case has yet to be filed. "These are people who have been told [that] if they open the doors they will lose their jobs - it's a fire and safety problem," says Andrew Stettner of the National Employment Law Project in New York.
Most large class-action lawsuits in the US are settled before they go to trial. If the sex-discrimination case does go to trial, activists groups believe it has the potential to change the way low-wage employers act. (A guilty verdict would open a second phase of the trial would let the plaintiffs seek damages.) In a 1997 case covering 25,000 women, Home Depot settled a sex discrimination case for $104 million.
• Staff writer Elizabeth Armstrong contributed to this story, and wire service material was used.