“Because respondents provide no convincing proof of a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy, we have concluded that they have not established the existence of any common question” necessary for a class-action suit, Justice Antonin Scalia said in the 5 to 4 opinion.
The case was the most important of the term for corporate interests, some of which face the same kind of class-action suits filed by female employees. More than 20 of the country’s largest companies filed a brief supporting Wal-Mart in the case.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the court’s liberals, who include the court’s two other female justices, said the women should have been given the chance to prove their case.
Ginsburg said there was ample evidence that there were problems at Wal-Mart, where, when the suit was filed, women held 70 percent of the hourly jobs but made up only 33 percent of management employees.
“The court, however, disqualifies the class at the starting gate,” she wrote in dissent. She was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Wal-Mart attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. called the ruling “an extremely important victory not only for Wal-Mart but all companies that do business in the United States.”
The sentiment was echoed by Robin Conrad of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s litigation arm: “This is, without a doubt, the most important class-action case in more than a decade. We applaud the Supreme Court for affirming that mega-class actions such as this one are completely inconsistent with federal law.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs — six company workers who sought to represent the rest of Wal-Mart’s female workforce — acknowledged that the decision effectively ends their suit, although they said individual discrimination suits or smaller class-action litigation might be an option.
Class actions are favored by those alleging discrimination because they can force employers to change their practices. And often individual discrimination suits carry too small a payoff for lawyers to take.
Washington lawyer Joseph M. Sellers, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the decision “raises hurdles that workers have to surmount.” His co-counsel, Brad Seligman, said the ruling did not decide whether Wal-Mart was guilty of discrimination, and he directed women who think they were harmed to a Web site where they can register complaints for future legal action.
“Wal-Mart’s not off the hook,” Seligman said.