The Financial Landscape: Court Wins for Wal-Mart, Power Companies

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The Financial Landscape: Supreme Court Wins for Wal-Mart, Power CompaniesAll Business at the Supreme Court: The Roberts Supreme Court that brought us the Citizens United decision continued its corporatist streak Monday, handing down two key decisions that were certain to please the Chamber of Commerce. First, in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, the justices ruled in favor of the nation's largest employer, quashing a class-action suit that had been filed on behalf of more than a million-and-a-half current and former female Wal-Mart (WMT) employees. According to the majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, "the plaintiffs failed to provide proof of a common company-wide policy of discrimination," a necessary component of certifying a class. Four justices -- including all three women on the court -- disagreed: "Wal-Mart's delegation of discretion over pay and promotions is a policy uniform throughout all stores," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote for the minority. In a separate part of the ruling, the court was unanimous in dismissing the plaintiffs' claims to back pay: "Wal-Mart is entitled to individualized determinations of each employee's eligibility for back pay," Scalia wrote.

The court also considered an attempt by several states and private land trusts to fight climate change by filing public nuisance lawsuits against utilities. Justices were unanimous in dismissing the effort. Only the federal government, it seems, can regulate greenhouse gases. Not that it has been doing so: The EPA is set to issue its regulations of power plant emissions by next year. (A first phase of regulation began in January, after Congress failed to pass a climate change bill, but those regs apply only to new and modified plants. The states were suing over existing facilities.)

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Though it's good news for the power companies involved -- American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy Corp. (DUK), Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL), Southern Co. (SO), and the Tennessee Valley Authority -- the effects of the latter decision seem limited: only six states were involved in the effort. (The decision does raise the stakes somewhat for the attempts by congressional Republicans, and some Democrats, to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.)

But commentators seem to agree that the Wal-Mart decision is something of a landmark, making it significantly harder for people to join together to form a class and file suit against a large corporation. In his majority opinion, Scalia credited Wal-Mart with having an official corporate policy against discrimination. "The women of Wal-Mart," said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, "together with women everywhere, will now face a far steeper road to challenge and correct pay and other forms of discrimination in the workplace." Though Wal-Mart dodged what could have been billions of dollars in damages, it could still face further class action litigation from smaller, more specific groups of workers and former employees.

Another Greek Debt Crisis Wrinkle:
Fitch Ratings potentially complicated the efforts of European finance ministers to rescue Greece by announcing that it would consider any voluntary rollover of Greece's sovereign debt to be a default. Such measures are being considered as part of a second bailout package for the beleaguered country. Fitch also joined competitor Moody's in warning that the United States risks a downgrade of its credit rating as the specter of default continues to haunt debt ceiling negotiations in Washington.


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