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Wal-Mart v. Dukes

U.S. Supreme Court Imposes Limits on Class Action Bias Suits

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out lower court decisions that had approved a nationwide sex discrimination class action that could have included up to 1.5 million current and former female employees of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.


In this case, potentially the largest sex discrimination suit in history, the three plaintiffs alleged on behalf of themselves and a class of up to 1.5 million that women employed in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men despite having higher performance ratings and greater seniority, and receive fewer — and wait longer for — promotions to store manager positions. The lawsuit alleged longstanding patterns of sex bias at Wal-Mart and a systemic company "culture" of favoring men over women. When the suit was filed over 10 years ago, women made up over 70 percent of Wal-Mart's sales workforce, but fewer than 10 percent of store managers, fewer than one-third of management overall and 5 percent of Wal-Mart's top executives. Plaintiffs gathered statements from more than 100 women, compiled statistics looking at regional and national disparities between male and female employees in pay and promotions, and offered testimony of sociological experts regarding company conditions that allegedly facilitated sex-biased inequality.

The "class" of plaintiffs included women in a range of Wal-Mart positions, from part-time, entry-level, hourly employees to salaried managers. An appeals court found that "rigorous" legal requirements for a "class action" were satisfied by evidence of company-wide policies and practices producing fewer opportunities for women: uniform personnel and management structure across stores; headquarters oversight of store operations; company-wide pay and promotion policies; a strong centralized corporate culture; consistent gender-related disparities in every region of the U.S.; and gender stereotyping. Wal-Mart appealed, demanding all 1.5 million plaintiffs pursue relief separately.

A sharply divided Supreme Court agreed with Wal-Mart. The Court ruled that plaintiffs' evidence was insufficient to show that the litigation would produce a common answer to the question why each member of the potential class suffered discrimination. A bare 5-4 majority of the Court found that in this case plaintiffs failed to show any convincing evidence of discriminatory companywide policies. All nine justices agreed, however, that their monetary damage claims required individual determinations and, thus, were not capable of resolution on a class-wide basis.

What's at Stake

Class actions have played a vital role in enforcing civil rights, consumer and health care laws, and often provide the only real mechanism for victims to challenge widespread illegal practices. AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP's "friend of the court" brief because this case almost certainly will affect adversely older workers' ability to challenge age and disability employment discrimination and to enforce other protected rights on a class-wide basis.

The Wal-Mart decision strikes a grave blow against large-scale employment discrimination cases, and leaves unclear the extent to which federal courts will continue to entertain civil rights class actions. Already victims' rights advocates are discussing possible legislation to overturn the Wal-Mart decision.

Case Status

Wal-Mart v. Dukes
class action status was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case for further consideration of the plaintiffs' individual claims.

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