Sex Discrimination Case Against Wal-Mart Back in Court

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San Francisco—The nation’s largest retailer is back in court, awaiting a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco regarding a class-action lawsuit involving two million current and former female Wal-Mart workers.

A lower court had previously ruled that the women could bring a class-action suit against Wal-Mart for sexual discrimination, but now the retail giant wants this ruling overturned. This case would constitute the largest sexual discrimination lawsuit in the country’s history.

Class-action lawsuits tend to make it easier for large groups to sue corporations. Previous class-action suits have led to large settlements by tobacco makers, food companies, and chemical companies.

This lawsuit contends that gender discrimination pervaded Wal-Mart’s corporate atmosphere, leading to lower wages and fewer promotions for female employees at over 3,000 U.S. Stores. Says Brad Seligman, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, “This is conduct that was approved of and acquiesced for years.”

Wal-Mart attests that its store managers acted with discretion, promoting workers based on merit, and that class action is unwarranted.

In 2001, a Wal-Mart worker named Betty Dukes sued for sexual discrimination with six other plaintiffs. A trial judge certified the case as a class-action matter in 2004. Wal-Mart has lost two appeals. If the Ninth Circuit court, which has jurisdiction in nine mostly Western states, upholds the ruling, Wal-Mart will be forced to appeal the matter in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs are seeking an undetermined amount in punitive damages and lost pay. Additionally, they are requesting injunctive and declaratory relief, which means that Wal-Mart would be required to rectify inequities in pay and promotion. On Tuesday, the 11 judges on the Ninth Circuit panel questioned the plaintiffs’ lawyers about how Wal-Mart would compensate for the discriminatory situations, including administering back pay. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski aksed, “Are you saying there was discrimination at all stores?”

Answered Seligman, “We’re maintaining there was a pattern of discrimination.”

Attorneys for Wal-Mart attested that the court should hold a higher standard when deciding whether a class-action suit was appropriate, given the costly punitive damages involved.

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the world, and the largest grocery retailer in the United States. According to the 2008 Fortune Global 500, Wal-Mart is the world’s largest publication corporation by revenue.

 

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