Wal-Mart Stores Inc. asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block female employees from suing on behalf of as many as 1.5 million women in what would be the largest gender-bias suit against a private employer in U.S. history.
The world’s largest retailer today appealed a 6-5 lower court decision allowing women who have worked at Wal-Mart since 2001 to be part of a single class-action lawsuit. The justices likely will say later this year whether they will hear the case.
Saying the workers are seeking billions of dollars in back pay, Wal-Mart told the justices that the claims of workers around the country were too diverse to proceed as a single case under the rules that govern federal lawsuits.
“The class is larger than the active-duty personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard combined --making it the largest employment class action in history by several orders of magnitude,” argued the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company, the largest U.S. private employer.
Wal-Mart is accused of paying women less than men for the same jobs and giving female workers fewer promotions. The lawsuit was filed in 2001 by six women, including Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart greeter in Pittsburg, California.
“The ruling upholding the class in this case is well within the mainstream that courts at all levels have recognized for decades,” said Brad Seligman, an attorney for the workers, in an e-mailed statement. “Only the size of the case is unusual, and that is a product of Wal-Mart’s size and the breadth of the discrimination we documented.”
The company says that no pay disparity exists between men and women at most of its stores and that managers make subjective salary and promotion decisions at the store level.
“Wal-Mart is an excellent place for women to work and has been recognized as a leader in fostering the advancement and success of women in the workplace,” the company said in a statement.
The company agreed in 2008 to pay as much as $640 million to settle 63 federal and state class actions claiming the company cheated hourly workers and forced them to work through breaks.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said proceeding as a class action was better than “clogging the federal courts” with individual suits. “Mere size does not render a case unmanageable,” Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote for the majority.
In dissent, Judge Sandra Ikuta said, “Never before has such a low bar been set for certifying such a gargantuan class.”
A federal trial judge certified a class of as many as 1.5 million past and current employees. The 9th Circuit upheld that ruling as to women who were working when the lawsuit was filed, while saying the judge might be able to create an additional class for former employees.
The case is Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes.