Could/Should Millions of Women Sue Wal-Mart?

Will the Supreme Court's recent hearing decision on the biggest class-action employment discrimination case in the nation's history put Wal-Mart Inc. one step closer to paying out billions of dollars to millions of women?

Yes and no, according to the legal experts weighing in on the issue.

It's important to note that the Supreme Court has only agreed to hold a hearing on whether or not claims made by the individual employees may be combined into a class action lawsuit. In other words, the High Court will decide whether or not it's OK for all female Wal-Mart employees, past or present, to sue as one entity. That could involve 1.5 million workers and billions of dollars.

This Supreme Court hearing has nothing to do with ruling, at this point, on whether or not women working for Wal-Mart suffered any kind of sexual discrimination, either as a matter of corporate policy or on an individual store/manager basis.

The case is known as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes.

A very big deal

"This is the mother of all class action lawsuits, with the potential to bring a major U.S. corporation like Wal-Mart to its knees," said Clint David, managing shareholder of Dallas law firm David, Goodman & Madole. "If the Supreme Court allows this to proceed as a class action, there will be an avalanche of similar suits and it will open up America's largest employers to class-action sexual discrimination suits."

Wal-Mart is happy about this latest development. "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has granted review in this important case," Wal-Mart Inc. said in a 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. We look forward to the Court's consideration of the appeal."

Female Wal-Mart employees who have been discriminated against will still be able to sue their individual stores and employers, even if the massive suit doesn't go through as a class action. You can imagine why this would be a better alternative from Wal-Mart's perspective. The class action suit, if won, would allow all of Wal-Mart's female employees to get a piece of the billion-dollar settlement pie, without having to prove that they suffered discrimination on an individual basis.

The lawyers arguing the case for the plaintiffs claim that Wal-Mart's sexual discrimination policies are endemic to corporate policy, and affect all female workers whether they know it or not. Wal-Mart, of course, denies that it makes sexual discrimination a corporate policy.

A Wal-Mart employee's two-cents

Whether it does or it doesn't, some Wal-Mart workers feel just the the threat of a lawsuit has already affected them for the better. "I've already seen a change here since talk of the lawsuit came up," said one female Wal-Mart employee who, for obvious reasons, would rather remain anonymous. "I was promoted much faster than I was told to expect, and the new employees brought on for the holidays are being treated much more respectfully -- and carefully -- than I was when I was hired."

She believes they've deserved that kind of treatment all along, and it's too bad it took a lawsuit to stimulate it. But, she adds, "Would I accept part of the settlement if it was offered to me? Of course! But I think a billion-dollar settlement might keep Wal-Mart from hiring more people, and from giving current employees like me raises. The only people who are going to get rich off this is the lawyers."

Attorney David agrees. "This is opening a Pandora's Box," he says. "There's a lot of money to be made from these types of lawsuits -- and where there's money, the lawyers always swoop in."

According to litigator Gerald Maatman of leading employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw, "Employers will hear much more about the Dukes case in the weeks and months ahead. The Supreme Court's ruling may well be one of the most important employment discrimination class action decisions in decades, and may change the workplace class action landscape permanently."

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