Updated, June 20 at 10:54 a.m.:
Wal-Mart went before the before the U.S. Supreme Court in March to defend itself in what could become the largest job discrimination case in history. The company was accused of paying female workers less than males and of favoring males in promotions.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in Wal-Mart’s favor, preventing the class-action lawsuit from proceeding.
Here’s an overview of the case and why the high court’s decision will likely rewrite the rules for how job bias cases are handled nationwide for years to come:
June 2004: Federal court certifies the national class action.
February 2007: First 9th Circuit Court panel decision upholds lower court decision. Read the order here.
April 2010: 9th Circuit Court En Banc panel decision affirms previous decision. Read the opinion here.
March 2011: Supreme Court oral arguments scheduled
June 2011: Supreme Court sides with Wal-Mart. Read about the ruling here.
In 2001, a Wal-Mart cashier in Pittsburg, Calif., named Betty Dukes sued the company, claiming that she was denied opportunities to advance despite good performance reviews. Her attorney, Brad Seligman, says there’s a company-wide pattern of sexual discrimination that reflects the corporate culture of Wal-Mart.
The case has been making its way through the courts for 10 years. Some of the allegations include testimony from Wal-Mart managers who said they visited strip clubs during company meetings or saw nothing wrong with going to Hooters for business gatherings. A female employee said a male manager told her to “doll up” and wear some makeup and dress better.
Dukes is now the lead plaintiff in a case that involves sworn statements from more than 100 female employees who said they faced discrimination, harassment or a hostile work environment because of their sex and that company executives failed to fix the problems. They hired a statistician to analyze Wal-Mart’s payroll data to try to prove that women are not paid as well or promoted as often as men.
Q&A on the Wal-Mart lawsuit
Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center and products liability defense attorney Matthew Cairns debated the Wal-Mart female discrimination Supreme Court case during a live Q&A Monday. Read the transcript from the discussion here.
Women represented two-thirds of hourly employees, but made up less than 14 percent of store managers. Women had to wait longer for promotions. On average, women waited 4.38 years from their date of hire to become assistant managers versus 2.86 years for men. It took 10.12 years on average before they would move up to store manager compared with 8.64 years for men. Women also earn 5 to 15 percent less than men in almost every job category even after accounting for seniority, turnover and performance.
Wal-Mart denies any wrongdoing and emphasizes that its corporate policy forbids discrimination, encourages diversity and ensures fair treatment. The company says that hiring decisions are made by local store managers rather than at the corporate level and that store managers were given wide discretion in pay and promotion. At 90 percent of the company’s stores, there’s no pay difference between men and women. At the time the class action was approved, hourly employees were divided into 170 job classifications in 3,400 stores.
What happened in lower courts:
In 2004, a federal district judge in San Francisco ruled in favor of Dukes in that the suit could be a class action. Appeals courts have twice upheld the previous rulings: In 2007 in a 2-1 vote and in 2010 in a 6-5 decision.
What the Supreme Court is being asked to decide:
The case is centered on the federal rules that require that representative plaintiffs be typical of the class. Are the statistics sufficient enough to allow the plaintiffs to join single cases of discrimination into a national class action to sue an employer?
What’s at stake:
If the high court allows the case to proceed as a class action, the lawsuit could affect millions of current and former employees—more than the combined total of active-duty personnel in the armed forces, according to Wal-Mart’s lawyers--and could cost the company tens of billions of dollars. It could broaden the use of statistics to prove job discrimination for all sorts of reasons, including race, pregnancy or disability.
If Wal-Mart wins, it will be more difficult to bring national job-bias suits because the justices would effectively be saying that employees in different stores with different jobs do not have enough in common to be a class.
The case for the plaintiffs:
The high court for the first time in its history has three women on the bench hearing a sexual discrimination lawsuit.
The case for Wal-Mart:
Five of the nine justices have been hostile to class actions, so we could see a 5-4 decision.
The plaintiff’s supporters:
Practically every major women’s and labor rights organization has come out against Wal-Mart. They say a victory for Wal-Mart could crush efforts to stop discrimination at other companies.
National Women’s Law Center: Wal-Mart allowed “sex-stereotyping” to drive pay and promotion
U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce: Wal-Mart should not be “‘too big’ to be held accountable”
More than 20 major U.S. companies—including General Electric, Microsoft and Bank of America--have filed court papers supporting Wal-Mart’s position. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that allowing the suit to proceed as a class action might cause a wave of class actions involving other employment discrimination claims, as well as antitrust and product-liability.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: West Coast will become “haven for bet-the-business class actions”
Companies: Class action status would force big firms to settle “even meritless claims” because of exposure
Court filings and other key documents:
What people are saying about the lawsuit on Twitter
Discussion: What’s the greatest workplace barrier for women?
The female workers’ suit against Wal-Mart is in oral arguments at the Supreme Court and could become the largest job discrimination case in history. What do you see as the biggest barrier for women in the workplace, and what will it take in order to really tip the scales?
Here, panelists from the Post’s On Leadership blog weigh in.
Previous coverage in The Washington Post:
Appeals court upholds female employees lawsuit against Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart funds study showing women’s impact in business
Wal-mart loses bid to block class action suit
Study shows good ’ol boys network runs strong