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Supreme Court set to take up massive Wal-Mart discrimination case

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will decide whether 1.5 million women can form a 'class' that faced the same injury – in this case, gender-based discrimination by Wal-Mart – or not.

By Staff writer / March 28, 2011

Protesters in New York City, February 3, march to demonstrate against Wal-Mart moving into their neighborhood. On March 29, the Supreme Court will take up a massive discrimination case against Wal-Mart. The question before the court: Can 1.5 million women represent a 'class' for a class-action lawsuit?

Brendan McDermid / Reuters / File

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Washington

The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday takes up the largest employment discrimination lawsuit in US history, a case pitting the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., against more than 1.5 million current and former female employees.

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The lawsuit, filed in 2001, alleges that Wal-Mart discriminated against women workers by paying them lower wages and promoting them less often than male employees. If the female workers win, it could cost Wal-Mart more than a billion dollars.

Wal-Mart denies the allegations.

But that’s not the issue before the high court.

The justices must address whether lower court judges were correct in allowing the women to join together in a single, massive lawsuit against Wal-Mart.

How the court answers that question could make it harder or easier for plaintiffs to band together in a wide range of lawsuits, including cases involving discrimination, civil rights, the environment, securities fraud, and dangerous products.

Corporations and business groups, who have long sought to limit the size and scope of such class-action lawsuits, have filed friend-of-the-court briefs siding with Wal-Mart. Women’s groups and civil rights organizations have filed briefs supporting the female employees.

Marcia Greenberger, founder of the National Women’s Law Center, says the case will be critical in the fight for women’s rights and employee rights.

“The bigger the employer, the more important the class-action feature,” Ms. Greenberger said at a recent American Constitution Society discussion.

“For many, this is the only meaningful way some workers can get access to the courts,” added Suzette Malveaux, a law professor at Catholic University.

Other analysts say the court will likely approach the case with a broader perspective.

“Is this the right way to try the case? That’s what the Supreme Court will focus on,” says Andrew Trask, a Washington lawyer who specializes in defending against class-action lawsuits.

The nationwide class-action suit against Wal-Mart seeks an injunction ordering the retail giant to end its alleged discriminatory employment practices. It also seeks back pay and punitive damages.

A class-action lawsuit is a legal case filed on behalf of a number of plaintiffs who suffered similar injuries. It seeks to achieve a degree of judicial efficiency by lumping similar plaintiffs together into one large case against the same defendant. Lawyers who file such suits identify an appropriate group of the victims to represent the larger class of victims.

Lawyers for Wal-Mart say the case should not proceed as a single class-action lawsuit. They say the class as approved by the lower courts violates federal rules of procedure that require all members of the class to share a common injury. In addition, they say the massive lawsuit makes it impossible for the corporation mount an effective defense.

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