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Why It’s So Hard to Sue Wal-Mart for Gender Discrimination

Written by Jessica Mason Pieklo forRH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

It can take years for the effects of even the big Supreme Court decisions to really take hold. Consider the case of Wal-Mart v. Dukes two years ago, a decision that revoked class-action certification from what would have been one of the largest gender bias lawsuits of its kind. At the time, more than 1.5 million female Wal-Mart workers claimed the retailer unlawfully discriminated against them when it came to their pay and promotions, because of a corporate culture that enabled stereotyping of female workers. The Supreme Court rejected these claims, holding that the women didn't have enough in common to justify hearing their claims against Wal-Mart together as one case.

Disappointed but undeterred, the women pressed on, determined to bring their claims even if they were narrower. But last week the plaintiffs suffered another setbackas a federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a claim by 150,000 of the 1.5 million original plaintiffs on the grounds that while the new proposed class of plaintiffs is definitely smaller than the original class rejected by the Supreme Court, there still isn't enough proof the women suffered similar treatment to justify hearing their claims all at once. Instead of seeking to press their claims on a nationwide class of workers at Wal-Mart's 3,400 stores, as the original complaint against the retail giant did, the female workers had asserted that they represented about 150,000 employees in what is called the "California region" of the company—an area made up of three Wal-Mart geographic zones and 250 stores. This new class of plaintiffs sought to represent any female workers who had been on the company payroll between December 26, 1998, and December 31, 2002, and who were subject to pay scales based on hourly rates and on salary levels, and were eligible for promotion to management trainee or area manager.

But this smaller, regional approach was not enough to convince the federal courts to allow the claims to proceed. U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, a Clinton appointee and brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, concluded:

[T]hough they have cut down the raw number of proposed class members significantly, Plaintiffs continue to challenge four different kinds of decisions across hundreds of decision makers, inviting failures of proof at multiple points in each region.

This new, smaller class "continues to suffer from the problems that foreclosed certification of the nationwide class." Though the workers "insist that they have presented an entirely different case from the one the Supreme Court rejected, in fact it is essentially a scaled-down version of the same case with new labels on old arguments."

 

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