Patt Morrison for December 6, 2010

Whither the class action lawsuit?

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The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal in the biggest employment discrimination case in the nation’s history, one claiming that Wal-Mart discriminated against hundreds of thousands of women in pay and promotion.

It’s the biggest workplace, class action suit in the history of the U.S., and it will decide much more than just the fate of 1.5 million women working at Wal-Mart—the future of class action lawsuits will also be at stake when the Supreme Court takes up Wal-Mart v. Dukes this Spring. The Wal-Mart case contends that women were regularly paid less than men and denied promotions, which Wal-Mart has denied. While the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave the go ahead to the lawsuit, Wal-Mart is arguing that the lawsuit shouldn’t proceed as a class action, because hiring and promotion decisions are made by local management in its 3,400 stores. Wal-Mart’s position is viewed sympathetically by many large companies that feel pressured to simply settle huge class action lawsuits rather than risk a potentially crippling jury verdict. Class action suits have long been viewed as a way to hold companies accountable but that all could change depending on how SCOTUS rules in a case that now goes well beyond gender discrimination.


Beth Livingston, assistant professor of human resources studies at Cornell University

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