By Mark Sherman, AP
WASHINGTON–The Supreme Court will consider whether to keep alive the largest job discrimination case in U.S. history, a lawsuit against Wal-Mart that grew from a half-dozen women to a class action that could involve billions of dollars for more than a half million female workers. Wal-Mart is trying to halt the lawsuit, with the backing of many other big companies concerned about rules for class-action cases — those in which people with similar interests increase their leverage by joining in a single claim. Class actions against discount seller Costco and the tobacco industry are among pending claims that the high court’s decision might alter. The suit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. contends that women at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores are paid less and promoted less often than men. The case the high court accepted on Monday will not examine whether the claims are true, only whether they can be tried together. Estimates of the size of the class range from 500,000 to 1.5 million women who work or once worked for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart Ark., is appealing a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the class-action lawsuit could go to trial. Tobacco giant Altria Corp., Bank of America Corp., Dole Food Company Inc., General Electric Co., Intel Corp., Pepsico Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. are among the companies that also called for high court review of the case. Lawyers representing the women said they are eager to resolve procedural issues that have delayed the trial. They said they “welcome the U.S. Supreme Court’s limited review of the sex discrimination case and are confident that the court will agree that the women of Wal-Mart are entitled to their day in court.” Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million people in the United States and 2.1 million workers in 8,000 stores worldwide. The company said the women should not be allowed to join together in the lawsuit because each outlet operates as an independent business. Wal-Mart argued that it doesn’t have a companywide policy of discrimination, and therefore women alleging gender bias should file individual lawsuits against individual stores. The plaintiffs contend that the company was aware that it lagged behind other employers in terms of opportunities for women and that Wal-Mart imposes uniform rules and tight controls over its stores. Wal-Mart said that allowing the large number of claims to go forward would set off an avalanche of similar class-action lawsuits in California and the other Western states overseen by the 9th Circuit. Class-actions increase pressure on businesses to settle lawsuits because of the cost of defending them and the potential for very large judgments. But the lawyers representing the women who are suing Wal-Mart say there have been only eight such suits nationwide — and none within the 9th Circuit — since the first appeals court ruling in favor of the women nearly four years ago.
The lawsuit was first filed by six women in federal court in 2001. The 9th Circuit has three times ruled that the case could proceed as a class action. The case will be argued in early 2011.