Discrimination Suit Challenged: (Wal-Mart V. Dukes)

By Owusu, Tony | The World and I, April 2011 | Go to article overview
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Discrimination Suit Challenged: (Wal-Mart V. Dukes)


Owusu, Tony, The World and I


Are 1.6 million defendants too many for a class action lawsuit?

Although the case has languished in the judicial system for a decade, the justices are finally debating whether Wal-Mart can be held liable for damages stemming from alleged discriminatory practices against female employees by a potential class of 1.6 million women. This is the argument that the Supreme Court heard on Tuesday March 29, 2011 in the case of Wal-Mart v. Dukes.

The case is intriguing not only because of its sheer size--1.6 million defendants would be the largest class action lawsuit ever filed--but also because while discrimination is at the heart of the case, which hasn't been ruled on in the lower courts yet, the Supreme Court will not be deciding whether Wal-Mart is in fact participating in discriminatory practices. Rather it has the much narrower scope of deciding whether the defendants have met the requirements necessary to file a class action lawsuit under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Procedure.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has 3,400 stores across the United States and employs over 1 million people. In 2001 one of those employees, Betty Dukes, a cashier at a Pittsburg, California Wal-Mart, sued the retail giant, claiming that she was denied promotions based on her gender despite good performance reviews and 6 years of service. Dukes sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights act .Currently Dukes is the named plaintiff in a case that includes 100 sworn statements from current and former female Wal-Mart employees.

Dukes' attorneys have compiled data that show that two-thirds of Wal-Mart's hourly wage earners are women; meanwhile they only make up 14% of store managers. Couple that with the fact that women had to wait longer, on average, for their first promotion to assistant manager than their male counterparts (4.38 years compared to 2.86 years) and the case can be made that the statistics show a pattern of discrimination.

Wal-Mart's response to these allegations has been that it is not liable for any discriminatory practices since it has a compulsory anti-discrimination hiring policy. They also contend that hiring decisions come from local stores, not the corporate headquarters, therefore the entire company can not be held responsible for the actions of local stores. They also claim that there is no pay difference between men and women at 90 percent of their stores.

In deciding whether or not to allow the lawsuit to move forward, the court will have to judge the merits of the case against Rule 23.

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