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An enormous lawsuit against Wal-Mart for charges of sex discrimination was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. At stake is whether the suit can go forward as a class action that could involve 500,000 to 1.6 million women, according to varying estimates, and potentially could cost the world’s largest retailer billions of dollars.
Women employees at the retail giant claim that men make more money and get promoted faster than their female counterparts. One plaintiff in the suit said she was told to “doll up” and “blow the cobwebs off her make-up.” The suit was originally filed 10 years ago and Wal-Mart has been fighting the litigation every step of the way. It is the biggest litigation threat that the company has ever faced.
The lawsuit, however, has much further implications beyond the original claim of discrimination. Discrimination suits are much more powerful when they are presented together as a class action suit and can often force change. Columbia University law professor John Coffee said that the high court could bring a virtual end to employment discrimination class actions filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, depending on how it decides the Wal-Mart case. “Litigation brought by individuals under Title VII is just too costly,” Coffee said. “It’s either class action or nothing.”
Wal-Mart wants the Supreme Court to stop the lawsuit, even though a trial judge and the federal appeals court in San Francisco has allowed the suit to go forward. Wal-Mart argues it includes too many women with too many different positions. The company claims that its policies prohibit discrimination and that most management decisions are made at store and regional levels. Theodore J. Boutrous, Wal-Mart’s California-based lawyer, said there is no evidence that women are poorly treated at Wal-Mart. “The evidence is the contrary of that,” Boutrous said.
Wal-Mart is not saying that no women face discrimination but feels that these incidents would be isolated. “People will make errors,” said Gisel Ruiz, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for people, as the company calls its human resources unit. “People are people.”
The suit, citing what are now dated figures from 2001, contends that women are poorly represented among managers, holding just 14 percent of store manager positions compared with more than 80 percent of lower-ranking supervisory jobs that are paid by the hour. Wal-Mart responds that women in its retail stores made up two-thirds of all employees and two-thirds of all managers in 2001.
A ruling is expected by late June in the hearing.