The Supreme Court recently heard Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the largest class action lawsuit in American history. Over 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees filed a systemic class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, alleging that they were part of a system of discrimination where they received lower wages than their male counterparts and were passed over for promotions in favor of male employees. The women seek backpay and punitive damages as well as a change in Wal-Mart’s employment practices. The Supreme Court is tasked with determining whether Wal-Mart can still receive a fair trial.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines systemic discrimination as a form of intentional discrimination that occurs when employers have a pattern, practice or policy that broadly affects an industry, profession, company or geographic area. Wal-Mart contends that it is impossible for its employees to allege a case of systemic discrimination based on its company employment statistics. They claim that the alleged pay discrepancies only exist as a result of employee merit and not a discriminatory policy.
A class action lawsuit is a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of many people who have been harmed by the same defendant in a similar way. In order for a class to become certified, one injured plaintiff must serve as a class representative, and the class representative must demonstrate that a legal claim exists against the defendant on behalf of all of the plaintiffs in the class. A judge may deny certification if the class is too large or if the series of harms and claims are too diverse.
In Dukes, the primary issue is whether Wal-Mart’s right to due process is at risk in defending itself against 1.5 million employees. If the Court upholds the certification, the Court will set a new precedent for class action litigation. A decision for the plaintiffs may increase the propensity of large class-action lawsuits against corporations in the future.
Many corporations, including Microsoft, General Electric and Costco, filed amicus briefs in support of Wal-Mart. These large corporations fear that a judgment for the employees will seriously damage their business because the ruling would authorize larger class-action awards and settlements in the future. According to reports of the oral argument, a majority of the Justices were sympathetic to Wal-Mart’s position and appeared skeptical that the large corporation could still receive a fair trial. A decision on the case is expected in late June.
If you or a loved one was discriminated against in the workplace, you may have legal rights. For further questions, contact Broussard, David & Moroux at 888-337-2323(toll free) or 337-233-2323 (local).