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Supreme Court Dismisses Walmart Discrimination Suit

3:14 PM, Jun 20, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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The Supreme Court today unanimously dismissed a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against retail giant Walmart. The decision concluded that the suit, which claimed to represent hundreds of thousands of employees based on specific allegations of discrimination by three of the plaintiffs, was too broad, reversing the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. CNN reports:

The high-profile case– perhaps the most closely watched of the high court's term– is among the most important dealing with corporate versus worker rights that the justices have ever heard, and could eventually impact nearly every private employer, large and small.

Gisel Ruiz, Executive Vice President for Wal-Mart U.S., said in a statement the company was "pleased" with the court's ruling.

"Walmart has had strong policies against discrimination for many years. The Court today unanimously rejected class certification and, as the majority made clear, the plaintiffs’ claims were worlds away from showing a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy," the statement said. "By reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the majority effectively ends this class action lawsuit.”

In the suit, three former Walmart employees alleged they were discriminated against based on their sex, saying their managers denied them promotions while unfairly favoring men for those positions. Furthermore, the plaintiffs filed a class action suit, claiming that all female Walmart employees, as a class, were subject to discrimination by the company.

Although the decision to throw out the case was unanimous, four justices dissented from the majority on some of the particulars of the case.

“We are presented with one of the most expansive class actions ever,” Scalia writes for the majority, with which Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito concur.

“The crux of this case is commonality,” writes Scalia, who argues the plaintiffs did not show such commonality within the class represented in the suit. Scalia writes:

Commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members “have suffered the same injury,” Falcon, supra, at 157. This does not mean merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law. Title VII [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act], for example, can be violated in many ways—by intentional discrimination, or by hiring and promotion criteria that result in disparate impact, and by the use of these practices on the part of many different superiors in a single company. Quite obviously, the mere claim by employees of the same company that they have suffered a Title VII injury, or even a disparate impact Title VII injury, gives no cause to believe that all their claims can productively be litigated at once. Their claims must depend upon a common contention—for example, the assertion of discriminatory bias on the part of the same supervisor. That common contention, moreover, must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.

The majority argues that the plaintiffs offered no definitive proof that Walmart has a pattern of discrimination against female employees, based on three separate accounts from different employees at different stores and in different regions of the country. “Here respondents wish to sue about literally millions of employment decisions at once,” Scalia writes. “Without some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question why was I disfavored.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes the minority opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Ginsburg agrees with the Court’s decision to dismiss the case but dissents from part of Scalia’s opinion.

Read both opinions here.

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