Supreme Court Will Hear Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination Case
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in the case of hundreds of thousands of female employees against Wal-Mart. The company, they claim, discriminated against them in hiring and promotions. The court, however, will not decide on the validity of the discrimination charges, but whether or not the multitude of employees have the legal standing for a class action lawsuit in the first place.
The case began 11 years ago when 54-year-old Wal-Mart greeter Betty Dukes charged her employer with discrimination. The case has expanded into possibly the broadest class action lawsuit in this country’s history. But what is at issue in the case is whether or not the women have enough in common to be considered a “class.”
Businesses with be watching the case with great interest. If the court rules in the employees’ favor, it could open businesses to more class action lawsuits by broadening the definition. Many companies have filed briefs in support of Wal-Mart.
It will also be the most significant business case of the term for a court that has developed a reputation, fair or not, with siding with corporate America. This is in no small part because of the ruling in the Citizens United case, in which corporations were given permission to contribute more directly to political campaigns.
Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen wrote in an analysis in The Atlantic that a victory for Wal-Mart in this case would be “a ruling for corporations that will make the Court's landmark campaign finance ruling, Citizens United, seem like a trifle to workers all over the country.” But he also lays out why the ruling may not be as significant as it appears for Wal-Mart itself:
No matter what the justices say Tuesday, and no matter how they eventually rule, Wal-Mart already has largely succeeded in blunting the force of the allegations against it. The case will be 11 years old when it is decided by the Supreme Court and yet it is nowhere near trial, much less a plaintiffs' verdict that would be sustainable on appeal.
The lawsuit is based partly on the analysis of sociology professor William T. Biebly, whose work on discrimination and gender stereotyping as applied to this case has been called into question by other sociologists, according to the New York Times. His argument is that Wal-Mart’s policies led to gender discrimination, but the Times calls into question the data on which he bases his accusations:
At his deposition in 2003, Professor Bielby was asked “how regularly stereotypes play a meaningful role in employment decisions at Wal-Mart.”
“I can’t put a number on it,” he replied.
Asked whether he could give any guidance in “a range between, you know, .5 percent of the employment decisions and 99.5 percent,” he said no.
A U.S. District judge approved the class action in 2004 based on “largely uncontested, descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region.”
If that conclusion stands, employers may be more susceptible to charges of what one op-ed writer described as “structural oppression” at corporations.
Reach Ryan Faughnder here.