Wal-Mart Class Action Decision Brings Difficulties for Employees

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision dismissing a massive class action employment discrimination suit against retail giant Wal-Mart. The Court determined that there was no common issue of law or fact linking all of the members of the class and the lower court erred in certifying all female Wal-Mart employees from 1989 to the present as a class. The suit alleged that Wal-Mart's employment policies and practices resulted in thousands of discriminatory decisions regarding the hiring and promotion of women. The plaintiffs in the case filed the class action suit on behalf of up to 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees and sought billions of dollars in damages.

In reaching its decision, the Court noted that Wal-Mart had expressed a policy of anti-discrimination and gave substantial discretion to local managers in hiring decisions. The Court then reasoned that there was no way that the answer to the question "Why was I passed over?" could be the same for each member of the class in light of such policies, meaning that the women did not constitute a class for the purposes of filing a class action lawsuit.

Business leaders welcomed the Court's decision. Robin S. Conrad, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Litigation Center, called the decision "the most important class-action case in more than a decade" and said that the decision protected businesses from having to choose between settling frivolous lawsuits or facing enormous financial penalties if they try the cases and lose.

However, many lawmakers and labor groups criticized the decision because of the effect it will have on the ability of employees to assert their workplace rights and recover for workplace discrimination. The plaintiffs' lawyer insists that the decision overturns 40 years of jurisprudence regarding class action suits and erects substantial barriers for people looking to have their day in court as part of a class action suit, because the Wal-Mart decision makes the definition of a common issue of law or fact problematically narrow.

Additionally, the decision forces courts to examine the merits of a claim when deciding whether to certify a class. Plaintiffs will now be required to show that they are likely to be successful at trial at the pleading stage. This reality will make the cost of initiating a class action suit much higher - which means that fewer claims will make it to a courtroom.

Though the Wal-Mart decision makes class action lawsuits more difficult to pursue, if you have been discriminated against in the workplace, a class action is not your only option. Please contact an experienced employment law attorney to discuss your situation.