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Supreme Court dismisses women's class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart

The Supreme Court decision, seen as a victory for Wal-Mart and corporate America, makes it more difficult for employees to join together in a common lawsuit unless they are able to identify a common injury.

By Staff writer / June 20, 2011

A Wal-Mart worker pull carts at a Wal-Mart store in Pittsburg Calif., on Monday, June 20. A worker at this Wal-Mart was involved in a sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart. The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed the largest gender discrimination class action lawsuit in history.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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Washington

In a major victory for Wal-Mart and much of corporate America, the US Supreme Court on Monday dismissed the largest gender discrimination class action lawsuit in history.

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In a 5 to 4 opinion, the justices reversed a lower court decision allowing as many as 1.5 million female workers to sue the nation’s biggest private employer for back pay and punitive damages that could have totaled billions of dollars.

The decision makes it more difficult for employees and others to join together in a common lawsuit unless they are able to clearly identify a common injury, such as a company-wide discriminatory policy.

In a ruling on a secondary aspect of the case, all nine justices agreed that the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco erred in allowing the massive class action lawsuit to move forward on claims seeking back pay.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling should surprise no one,” said Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John’s University. “Class actions are predicated on ‘common questions.’ A class of millions of disgruntled employees is just too vast to present a handful of questions that are fundamental to each and every one of them,” he said. “This is especially true for employment decisions that turn on so many idiosyncrasies of individual workers and their managers.”

'Far steeper road'

Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center called the ruling “a devastating decision undoing the rights of millions of women across the country to come together and hold their employers accountable for their discriminatory practices.”

She added, “The women of Wal-Mart – together with women everywhere – will now face a far steeper road to challenge and correct pay and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.”

The Wal-Mart litigation is not necessarily over. The female employees can file individual lawsuits claiming discrimination and seeking back pay. They could also break the massive lawsuit down into smaller, more focused lawsuits.

In reaching its decision, the high court rejected what it called “Trial by Formula.”

Writing for five members of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said that under federal rules of civil procedure the class action lawsuit again Wal-Mart should not have been approved because it lacked a single common question tying each employee’s claims together for efficient resolution in a single trial.

“Here respondents wish to sue about literally millions of employment decisions at once,” Justice 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 disfavored.”

Earlier dissent is cited

Scalia quoted an earlier dissent in the case written by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. He wrote that members of the class “held a multitude of different 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), subject to a variety of regional policies that all differed…. Some thrived while others did poorly. They have little in common but their sex and this lawsuit.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and three other members of the court dissented to that portion of Scalia’s decision, saying they would have decided the case on narrower grounds.

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