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Why Wal-Mart Matters, But Perhaps Less Than You Think

June 21st, 2011 | David Weisenfeld

David Weisenfeld

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Monday in Wal-Mart v. Dukes understandably garnered front-page headlines in the nation’s newspapers. After all, the case was the largest employment discrimination case in history, dwarfing all other competitors by far with its potential to have included more than one-million current and former female Wal-Mart employees.

But in reality, this mammoth pattern and practice class action was decided December 7, 2010. That’s the day the Supreme Court agreed to hear the dispute. The women who brought this 10-year-old case had won every step of the way. In fact, Ninth Circuit Judge Susan Graber said in her 2010 concurrence in one of the plaintiffs’ victories, “There is nothing unique about this case except for its size.”

As it turned out, however, size mattered. There was no direct circuit split on this issue. Indeed, there was no other case that was truly directly on point. So when the Supreme Court decided to wade into the fray, there was no chance it was doing so to pat the West Coast appellate court on the back for a job well done. Instead, the Court was going to place limits on class actions.

Lead plaintiffs’ counsel Brad Seligman fought hard and fought well throughout this ten-year-old litigation. But a case that could have led to billions of dollars in litigation was going to face a difficult hurdle at the nation’s highest court, and it did. The cries that plaintiffs now cannot proceed in employment class actions, however, could be premature.

The Wal-Mart case included hourly greeters, company vice presidents earning six figures, and female employees in all sorts of jobs between those extremes. The claim by the plaintiffs’ attorneys that Wal-Mart provided “unchecked discretion” to its managers was one that swing voter Anthony Kennedy undoubtedly found difficult to square with the allegation that the company had a top-down culture of discrimination emanating from Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters.

In fact, during the oral arguments Justice Kennedy said as much when he wondered aloud what the unlawful policy was. “It seems to me there’s an inconsistency there,” he said. “If it’s standardless and recordless, then why is there commonality?” If there was any doubt as to the outcome, that comment and question put it to rest.

This was less a case of Wal-Mart being “too big to sue” than the majority of the justices wondering how 1.5-million women at 3,400 stores in widely divergent positions could have something in common besides their gender.

The opinion was notably silent, however, about whether or not the retailer had engaged in sex discrimination. And, it leaves open the possibility of smaller groups of employees banding together, ideally from similar job classifications.

Wal-Mart’s attorney Theodore Boutrous said immediately following the decision, “Under [this] ruling, the way we read it, no class can be certified in this case.” But that seems to be more than a bit of hyperbole.

Will it be tougher for plaintiffs to proceed? Unquestionably. And when they do so, the litigation will be much smaller in scope. But the women and those who represent them have vowed to continue fighting Wal-Mart over what they see as unequal treatment. Smaller class actions against other big companies have succeeded before and likely will again. Those cases just need to be more focused than ever on complying with the Supreme Court’s call for commonality among class members.

About the Author: David Weisenfeld served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for LAWCAST from 1998 through June 2011. During that time, he covered every employment law case heard by the Court including Wal-Mart v. Dukes, and also wrote and co-anchored the company’s employment law newscasts. In addition, his work has appeared in the American Bar Association’s Supreme Court Preview magazine.

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