High Court's Wal-Mart Decision Makes It More Difficult to Bring Employment-Related Class Action

June 22, 2011

By: Erin S. Torcello

In a huge victory for the nation’s largest private employer, the United States Supreme Court ruled on June 20, 2011, that a class comprised of an estimated 1.5 million former and current female Wal-Mart employees could not proceed with a class action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Due in part to the sheer magnitude of the proposed class, the case – Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes – has received an enormous amount of media attention. At least within legal circles, the decision is likely to continue to receive attention for years to come because it has a significant impact on the standard used to determine whether the claims of diverse plaintiffs have enough in common to be certified as a class action.   The decision will make it much more difficult for very large groups of plaintiffs to litigate their employment-related claims together and thereby increase their economic leverage in litigation.

The issue before the Court was whether the former and current employees could proceed with their claims together in the form of a class action sex discrimination lawsuit. The plaintiffs alleged that Wal-Mart discriminated against female employees by denying them equal pay and/or promotions. More specifically, the plaintiffs contended that the discrimination was due to Wal-Mart’s pay and promotions policy. The policy generally left pay and promotion decisions to the broad discretion of managers and supervisors. There was little oversight of such decisions by upper management. The plaintiffs contended that this broad discretion fostered a discriminatory corporate culture that included the use of gender stereotypes in pay and promotion decisions.

Wal-Mart countered by arguing that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the legal prerequisites for a class action. Under federal law, in order to be certified as a class, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that there are questions of law or fact common to the class. Wal-Mart contended that the plaintiffs could not meet this “commonality” standard because their individual experiences with the Company were so vastly different, decision-making was decentralized, and the only written policy that was relevant was one that prohibited all forms of discrimination. In other words, Wal-Mart argued there was no evidence of an illegal policy or practice common to all of the plaintiffs.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with Wal-Mart. The Court held that while the plaintiffs all alleged gender discrimination in pay or promotions, the mere evidence of a common injury (i.e., all members alleging a Title VII violation) does not meet the commonality standard. The Court explained that it was the plaintiffs’ burden to show “significant proof” that the Company operated under a “general policy of discrimination.” The Wal-Mart employees, however, could not point to any such policy. If anything, the Court noted that Wal-Mart’s policy was just the opposite of a uniform corporate policy. Each manager and supervisor had significant discretion in making pay and promotion decisions. The plaintiffs did argue that the practice of giving managers and supervisors discretion was a policy which had a discriminatory disparate impact. While acknowledging that such a policy could theoretically be the basis for a Title VII disparate impact claim, the Court concluded that this theoretical possibility was not sufficient alone to satisfy the commonality requirement. Instead, that policy of discretion had to be tied to a specific employment practice which, in turn, tied the 1.5 million claims together. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs had no such evidence, finding that the plaintiffs’ statistical evidence regarding pay and promotion, anecdotal accounts of discrimination by a fraction of the class members, and testimony from a sociologist about the impact of Wal-Mart’s corporate culture, were all insufficient to satisfy the plaintiffs’ burden of showing commonality.