The Supreme Court did not appear convinced that systematic sex discrimination occurred at more than 3,400 Wal-Marts. Image: CC Jeff Kubina/Flickr

Tens of billions of dollars in damages is at stake in a Wal-Mart sex discrimination class action lawsuit. The Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides in the largest workplace discrimination lawsuit ever filed. Doubts were raised about the likelihood of a class action proceeding against Wal-Mart after several justices questioned critical aspects of the lawsuit.

Wall-Mart lawsuit could affect all employers

The Wal-Mart sex discrimination lawsuit is viewed by legal experts as one of the most important cases to come before the Supreme Court regarding the rights of workers versus the rights of corporations.  The ruling could affect virtually every private employer in the U.S. The suit claims that up to 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees were paid less than men and given fewer chances at promotion. The plaintiffs are demanding back pay and punitive damages. Last year a trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco allowed the case to proceed in a combined, multiparty lawsuit in one trial. The Supreme Court must decide whether all the women who worked for Wal-Mart since 1998 can indeed sue together in a class action.

Class action status would sting Wal-Mart

Granting class-action status would greatly increase Wal-Mart’s potential liability in the the sex discrimination lawsuit. A ruling against Wal-Mart would put intense pressure on the company to settle claims out of court. If the justices side with Wal-Mart, the plaintiffs would be forced to file individual suits against the world’s largest retailer, which — on account of its vast legal and financial resources — could easily outlast its opponents. The Wal-Mart sex discrimination lawsuit has been closely followed by employee advocates as well as major U.S. corporations. If the plaintiffs win, disgruntled workers could swamp the courts with a flood of worker discrimination lawsuits. A win by Wal-Mart would bring a huge sigh of relief from corporate boards nationwide.

Justices doubt systematic discrimination

During arguments over the Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit Tuesday, the Supreme Court questioned whether systematic discrimination took place. The lawyer for the plaintiffs said stereotypes about women in the corporate culture at Wal-Mart affected pay and promotion decisions at more than 3,400 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in the U.S. Wal-Mart counters that any discrimination regarding pay or treatment came from a few rogue managers and a class-action covering all female employees deprives the company of its legal rights. Justices questioned a key contention by the plaintiff’s lawyer, that Wal-Mart managers were allowed personal discretion to pay men more than women, seemed to contradict claims of systematic discrimination. A decision is expected in June.

Sources

Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/news/sc-dc-walmart-discrimination-20110329,0,3119421.story

CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/03/29/scotus.wal.mart/index.html?npt=NP1

Associated Press: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gbOXzrZv6IDB2xzX5jdDJegcXkug?docId=879cbb4c18b44a338291cb69015c93db

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