Wal-Mart Supreme Court Case – 2011

Did you hear Wal-Mart’s collective sigh of relief on June 20, 2011?

The U. S. Supreme Court just gave Wal-Mart and employers across the country a huge present.  Employment lawyers around the country have been watching with anticipation as the Supreme Court decided whether to uphold certification of a class of 1.5 million Wal-Mart employees on wide-ranging gender discrimination claims.  The Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals had allowed the class certification for claims by these workers for discriminatory pay and promotion policies and practices which allegedly resulted in lower pay and other negative employment actions against women in Wal-Mart’s 3,400 stores since 1998.  This could have opened the floodgates for massive class action lawsuits across the country against very large, multi-state or national employers such as Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart appealed the certification of the class by the Ninth Circuit to the U. S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court granted Wal-Mart’s petition on an important procedural issue, which affects whether such huge groups of employees could bring all their claims against such an employer in one lawsuit, making it much easier for plaintiffs and their counsel to pursue litigation: whether a federal rule of civil procedure (which, by its terms, relates only to class action claims for injunctive or declaratory relief) was a proper basis for certifying all of these plaintiffs’ claims for monetary relief under Title VII.

The Supreme Court found that the certification of the plaintiff class of about 1.5 million workers was not consistent with the rule in question, and that the Title VII backpay claims were improperly certified for class action.  The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s certification of the class. Wal-Mart v. Dukes, No. 10-277 (June 20, 2011).  Now the case will go back to the courts to determine who proper plaintiffs in the lawsuit should be, just one person, fifty, ten thousand, or what number.  The ruling by no means marks the end of the case. Nothing in the ruling suggests that the plaintiffs could not bring a discrimination claim on at least a store-wide basis, the key issue being commonality of claims and evidence among the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs’ lawyers have invested millions and spent years on the case, and have compiled some good evidence, which they will certainly try to re-purpose.  They will just have to do it in lots of smaller lawsuits.