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