The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart today in a massive class-action lawsuit brought by current and former female employees. The women claimed that Wal-Mart, the country’s largest private employer, systematically discriminated against them on the basis of their gender by paying them less and promoting them less frequently than their male counterparts. As many as 1.5 million female employees would have been parties to the class action if it were allowed go forward.
The opinion, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, found that the proposed class members lacked “commonality,” i.e., that the 1.5 million potential plaintiffs each had different experiences at Wal-Mart that could not easily be tried in one case. Wal-Mart has approximately 3400 stores nationwide and thousands of male managers making personnel decisions. Justice Ruth Ginsburg filed a concurrence and dissent, taking issue with the majority’s opinion regarding commonality. Justice Ginsburg opined that the plaintiffs showed enough commonality to deserve a remand back to the district court for further proceedings. She pointed to statistical evidence provided by the plaintiffs which showed discrimination towards women. For example, women fill 70% of the hourly jobs in the retailer’s stores but make up only 33% percent of management; the higher up in the organization, the lower the percentage of women; women working in the company’s stores are paid less than men in every region; and the salary gap widens over time even for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time.
While employers will hail this decision as a victory, the celebration may be short-lived. 1.5 million women now have the right to file individual lawsuits against Wal-Mart all over the country. Alternatively, female employees can attempt to file class actions on a region-by-region or even store-by-store basis. Until Wal-Mart remedies what seems to be serious problems with its employment practices, it will continue to face legal action.