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Monday
Jun202011

High Court Sides With Wal-Mart in Gender-Bias Lawsuit

Spencer Platt / Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday stopped one of the largest employment discrimination cases in history from going forward. The case was brought by six female Wal-Mart employees who said they had been paid less than men in comparable positions despite having higher performance ratings and greater seniority.

The case had blossomed into a class action lawsuit involving hundreds of thousands of female employees. The court was unanimous in saying that the case should not have been certified by the lower courts because it failed to meet the certification requirements for seeking damages of monetary relief.

However, the court's five conservative justices went further. They found that the women also failed to demonstrate that there were questions of law common to the entire class of nearly 1.5 million female employees.

"The court rejects the notion that Wal-Mart had a policy of discrimination that could form any kind of fair basis for a civil-rights class-action case," the ruling stated.

The plaintiffs had claimed they could prove Wal-Mart discriminated against all women employees by statistics, by alleging that the company's corporate culture was suffused with gender stereotypes, and by pointing to the company's practice of allowing local managers wide discretion in hiring and promoting, which supposedly allowed those stereotypes to impact the lives of women employees.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed up the argument: "Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware. The risk of discrimination is heightened when those managers are predominantly of one sex, and are steeped in a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes."

Scalia laughed this argument out of court, essentially. He called it "unbelievable," "worlds away from significant proof" of discrimination, and declared the court could "safely disregard" everything the plaintiffs' key expert had to say.

"In a company of Wal-Mart's size and scope," Scalia wrote, "it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common *direction.*" (emphasis added) "Merely showing that Wal-Mart's policy of discretion has produced an overall sex-based disparity does not suffice."

This is strongly pro-business ruling. It will make it harder for plaintiffs' lawyers to construct class actions in many fields, since what the court does here is tighten the law's demand that members of a class have suffered a truly, provably "common" wrong.

Walmart said the class action could include "every woman employed for any period of time over the past decade in any of Walmart's approximately 3,400 stores….the millions of class members collectively seek billions of dollars in monetary relief."

The action stems from a sexual discrimination suit filed by six women who worked in 13 stores who alleged they had been paid less than men in comparable positions, despite having higher performance ratings and greater seniority.

In court papers, lawyers for the women said that the case needed to proceed as a class action because Walmart exercised a strong centralized corporate culture, and that class litigation "may be the only means of obtaining the broad injunctive relief necessary to address the allegedly discriminatory policies challenged."

The women were seeking injunctive relief, back pay and punitive damages.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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