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On Tuesday the Supreme Court will begin proceedings to decide the fate of the much talked about gender bias lawsuit against Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, which seeks class certification to represent millions of Walmart employees. The case pits Walmart against millions of female employees, including former and current, who allege rampant gender discrimination in over 3,400 retail stores. In the review on March 29th, the Supreme Court will decide whether the small group of women that filed a gender bias lawsuit against Walmart can represent over a million female employees at Walmart having common grievances against the country’s biggest retailer. The court’s affirmation of class certification will make the lawsuit the largest employment class action suit in the country’s history.
The lawsuit seeks class certification claiming that it is the only means by which broad injunctive relief can be obtained from the defendant, which exercises a strong centralized corporate culture. The plaintiffs contend that class action certification is necessary to give a fillip to anti discrimination laws. The lawsuit urges the Supreme Court to grant it a class certification in order to give women the power to proceed as a class action because individually, the plaintiffs do not have the means or incentive to pursue claims against such a large company.
History of the Case
In 2000, Dukes, a female Walmart employee filed a gender bias lawsuit against her employer, claiming that she was discriminated against despite six years of constant excellent performance reviews. The plaintiff claims that she was disciplined when she complained of discrimination.
In 2001, six female employees of Walmart, working in 13 stores, filed a lawsuit against the employer in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging gender discrimination in pay and promotion despite excellent performance at work. The lawsuit claims that despite being in comparable positions, the plaintiffs were paid less than their male colleagues. Over time, dozens of similarly situated Walmart female employees joined the suit, alleging similar biased treatment at the workplace. The lawsuit seeks class action certification to represent over 1.6 million female employees who have worked or have been working in Walmart stores since December 26, 1998. In June 2004, the federal district judge declared that the lawsuit can go forward as a class action suit under FRCP 23(b)(2). However, Walmart appealed the judgment.
One of the six original plaintiffs alleges that she was denied a promotion despite 25 years of service at Walmart. The plaintiff complains that one of her male general managers told her that she could advance in the company only if she could “doll up” and "blow the cobwebs” off her makeup.
The lawsuit claims that statistical analysis and anecdotal evidence were enough of a proof that the defendant indulged in gender bias, especially with hourly and salaried retail female employees. The suit contends that the plaintiffs were paid lesser salaries and had fewer advancement opportunities than their male colleagues. The suit claims that none of such a discriminatory “pattern is inescapable" and virtually consistent enough to keep women “uniformly disadvantaged."
The lawsuit accuses male managers at Walmart of referring to female employees as "girls," claiming that this has become a corporate culture at the organization, which is predominated with stereotypes demeaning to women. The lawsuit claims that the defendant’s corporate policies gave local male managers the discretion to make hiring and salary decisions, which resulted in “tap on the shoulder” system, giving them the leeway to create more opportunities for their male colleagues.
The lawsuit alleges Walmart of indulging in “delaying tactics” by arguing against the class certification and ignoring the real issue of gender discrimination, which is an endemic malpractice within the company.
The lawsuit accuses the defendant of letting systemic discrimination against women prevail at the workplace. The plaintiffs seek to vindicate their civil rights, their rights to fair salary and promotions. The lawsuit claims that the defendant failed to check the local store managers who often indulged in making sexist decisions regarding promotions and pay.
The plaintiffs claim that the defendant openly violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits gender bias. The lawsuit claims billions of dollars from Wal Mart in back pay, injunctive relief, and punitive damages for ignoring female worker’s complaints of discrimination and rather promoting the culture of gender bias against them.
Class Certification Claims
In its argument seeking class action certification, the lawsuit asserts that with millions of women employees at Walmart complaining of gender bias, it was enough to prove that sexual discrimination is a “widespread” problem in the company.
Earlier, in 2004, the district court agreed that women meet the standards of class certification, thus allowing a class action suit against Walmart. Even the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the district court decision, thus clearing the way for a class action suit to cover female employees at Wal Mart from 2001 to 2004. In its ruling, the appellate court declared that a class certification wound ensure that the federal courts are not clogged with separate suits. The court further declared that “size does not render a case unmanageable." The appellate court limited the class to about 500,000 present Walmart employees, though the lawsuit seeks inclusion of all the female employees hired after 2004. In reply, Walmart argues need for "commonality requirement” for class certification, which means that claims of one woman represent that of all others.
The plaintiffs seek class certification to represent virtually every female employee at the organization, claiming that most of the plaintiffs lack enough money required to gain a warrant to press their individual lawsuits against Walmart. On March 29th, the Supreme Court would hear oral arguments on one of the most important corporate cases in recent years to review whether the lawsuit deserves a class certification. A decision on the same is expected to come by early summer. If the decision comes in favor of employees seeking class certification, it would be a harbinger of new rules regarding class actions.
The Supreme Court justices would focus on the issue of class certification and not make any judgment on the merits of the case regarding sexual discrimination. The lawsuit claims that a decision in favor of the plaintiffs would ensure private enforcement of civil rights laws in such cases. The Walmart case will have long term implications for female employees who challenge discrimination and seek fair treatment at the workplace. The gender bias claims have not yet been addressed by any court in the case. Resolution of the gender bias case awaits the Supreme Court decision on its class certification.
The Supreme Court judgment might affect several other pending cases and alter the legal landscape. Costco Wholesale Corp. also faces a similar lawsuit on behalf of more than 700 women. The case is on hold until the resolution of the Wal Mart case.
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