U.S. Supreme Court hears gender discrimination case on Wal-Mart

McKenzie Sixt & Julie Tran

The Supreme Court opened to discuss oral arguments, including a gender-discrimination case against Wal-Mart that holds between 600,000 and 1.5 million plaintiffs, on March 29.

The case, Dukes v. Wal-Mart, involves whether women who worked at Wal-Mart will get class-action status and sue the largest U.S. retail store for discrimination. The case is led by Betty Dukes and Christine Kwaponski, and if it goes to court, will be the largest class-action lawsuit in history.

“It’s important simply because of the money,” said Jeffrey Tobin, former federal prosecutor, speaking on CNN’s “In the Arena.” When you have 1.5 million potential plaintiffs, all of whom are looking at, at least, multiple thousand dollars in wards, even a company Wal-Mart’s size is at some risk.”

And if women can sue Wal-Mart, they can sue other big companies, Tobin said.

It began ten years ago, when women employees of Wal-Mart filed litigation and charged Wal-Mart with discrimination in hiring and promoting. The company defends themselves by saying they enforce “a strong anti-discrimination policy” at the corporate level and that they have “a strong record of advancement of women,” according to a statement by Gisel Ruiz, executive vice president of Wal-Mart, on March 29.

According to CNN, this case is the most important of its class and could potentially impact both small and large businesses.

The workers involved in the lawsuit say that while women make up for more than 70 percent of the entire Wal-Mart task force, they rank as only one-third of its store management.

Theodore Boutrous, an attorney for Wal-Mart, countered that the company’s figures show that at “90 percent of the store, there was no pay disparity.”

After Joseph Sellers, attorney for the workers, followed up by talking about what he called the “Wal-Mart way,” which he said was the “subjective discrimination (of managers),” when dealing with promoting and paying workers.

But he was continually shot down by the Supreme Court judges, after being told his logic “really shows a flaw in your case on commonality,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy.

However Sellers continued to go in the vein of the “corporate culture,” which leads to the “strong, centralized structure [that] fosters or facilitates gender stereotyping and discrimination,” and then ends up taking place at individual stores.

“The store managers don’t make up their own pay and promotion policy — they follow a common set of policies that are established by headquarters in Arkansas,” Sellers said. “There is extensive oversight of the decisions they make.”

But the judges were still unimpressed.

The plaintiff group can be as large as 1.5 million, and Wal-Mart is claiming the “historic” number of plaintiffs is too large to hold merit.

“The plaintiff’s lawyers in this case went way too far. It’s the way the plaintiffs have framed the case, implicating every store, every person. There’s no way, one woman can be representative of a million women in a case like this,” said Boutrous. “The danger is that it would expose virtually every company in America to huge, costly, baseless class actions that’s bad for jobs, bad for the economy, and at the end of day it doesn’t help the people on behalf the case is being brought.”

Wal-Mart has already been slammed with previous discrimination suits including African-American truck drivers and workers with disabilities. In 2001 alone the company paid out $6 million to 13 different lawsuits.

But the match isn’t over yet, as both plaintiff and defendant have plenty of data to back up their stories. Three women now sit on the Supreme Court, the highest in history, but the court has been known to side with big businesses in the past, including the Goodyear Tire sex-discrimination case of Lilly Ledbetter.

However, both sides agree that whatever the outcome, the workplace landscape will be changed forever for future generations.