2010-09-09 / Local & State

Wal-Mart Asks Supreme Court To Block Giant Gender Bias Lawsuit

By Warren Richey

Retail giant Wal-Mart on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling allowing more than 1.5 million women employees of the company to join together in what would become the largest class-action employment lawsuit in history.

The lawsuit filed by six women in 2001 charges that Wal-Mart engaged in gender discrimination by paying female employees less than men, and in passing women over for promotions that went to men. It seeks billions of dollars in damages.

Gender discrimination lawsuits are usually litigated one employee at a time. But courts may allow plaintiffs who were harmed under similar circumstances by the same person or company to join together in a common class of litigants to pursue their lawsuit.

Lawyers for Wal-Mart are fighting court rulings in California upholding the creation of the massive class of plaintiffs. It includes all women who worked in any of the companyís 3,400 domestic stores since 1998.

The most recent ruling came in April when the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco voted 6 to 5 to uphold the class action status of the lawsuit. Judges upholding the suit said the large number of affected women didnít matter and that the suit would be manageable.

Dissenting judges said the large size of the class suggests that the women may not share a common injury. “They have little in common but their sex and this lawsuit,” said Chief Judge Alex Kosinski in a dissent.

The chief judge added that the class members ìheld a multitude of jobs, at different levels of Wal-Martís hierarchy, for variable lengths of time, in 3,400 stores, sprinkled across 50 states, with a kaleidoscope of supervisors (male and female), subject to a variety of regional policies that all differed depending on each class memberís job, location and period of employment.î

Lawyers for Wal-Mart say the lower court decisions in the case are rewriting employment law to allow class action lawsuits for money damages under a rule, they say, that only permits judges to order corrective action.

They also argue that the class action process will undercut Wal-Mart’s ability to defend itself against charges that it intentionally discriminated against each of the 1.5 million women.

A decision by the justices on whether to take up the case is not likely until next year.

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