Sex-bias lawsuit against Wal-Mart hits possible snag
The Supreme Court appears ready to block a massive sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart on behalf of up to 1.6 million women, and that could make it harder for other workers nationwide to bring class-action claims against large employers.
The 10-year-old lawsuit, argued in lively exchanges at the court Tuesday, claims that Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest employer, favors men over women in pay and promotions. Billions of dollars are at stake if it is allowed to go forward.
The case also could affect the future of other class-action lawsuits that pool modest individual claims into a single action that creates the potential for a large judgment and increases the pressure on businesses to settle.
In Tuesday’s arguments, several justices suggested they were troubled by the case and lower-court decisions against Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart. Estimates of how many women could be included in the lawsuit run from 500,000 to 1.6 million.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a key vote on the high court, said the women’s argument points in apparently conflicting directions.
“You said this is a culture where Arkansas knows, the headquarters knows, everything that’s going on,” Justice Kennedy said to Joseph Sellers, the women’s lawyer. “Then in the next breath, you say, well, now these supervisors have too much discretion. It seems to me there’s an inconsistency there, and I’m just not sure what the unlawful policy is.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that at this stage of the lawsuit, the issue is not proving discrimination but showing enough evidence to go forward.
The court’s other two female justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Stephen Breyer also appeared inclined to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
But several of their more conservative colleagues appeared to agree with Theodore Boutrous Jr., representing Wal-Mart, that even subjecting the company to a trial would be unfair.
That split among the justices raised the prospect of an ideologically divided ruling by the court this summer.