WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal in the biggest employment discrimination case in the nation’s history, one claiming that Wal-Mart Stores discriminated against hundreds of thousands of women in pay and promotion. The lawsuit seeks back pay that could amount to billions of dollars.
The question before the court is not whether there was discrimination but rather whether the claims by the individual employees may be combined as a class action. The court’s decision on that issue will almost certainly affect all sorts of class-action suits, including ones asserting antitrust, securities and product liability, as well as other claims.
If nothing else, many pending class actions will slow or stop while litigants and courts await the decision in the case. Arguments in the case are likely to be heard this spring with a decision expected by the end of June.
Wal-Mart, which says its policies expressly bar discrimination and promote diversity, said the plaintiffs, who worked in 3,400 stores in 170 job classifications, cannot possibly have enough in common to make class-action treatment appropriate.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has granted review in this important case,” Wal-Mart said in a brief statement. “The current confusion in class-action law is harmful for everyone — employers, employees, businesses of all types and sizes and the civil justice system. These are exceedingly important issues that reach far beyond this particular case.”
There has been no ruling yet on the plaintiffs’ claims that they were discriminated against, and the ground rules for how those claims will be heard have not yet been determined. Resolution of the merits of the plaintiffs’ case will now await a decision about whether it may go forward as a class action.
In their brief urging the justices to deny review, the plaintiffs had said Wal-Mart’s objection to class-action treatment boiled down to the enormous size of the class. But size is “legally irrelevant,” the brief said.
“The class is large because Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer,” the brief said, “and manages its operations and employment practices in a highly uniform and centralized manner.”
Brad Seligman, the main lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Monday that plaintiffs welcomed the court’s review of the limited issue and were confident justices would rule in their favor.
“Wal-Mart has thrown up an extraordinarily broad number of issues, many of which, if the court seriously entertained, could very severely undermine many civil rights class actions,” Seligman said.
In April, an 11-member panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, ruled 6-5 that the class action could go forward.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, writing for the majority, said the company’s policies and treatment of women were similar enough that a single lawsuit was both efficient and appropriate.