Wal-Mart has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a mammoth class-action lawsuit that could cost the giant retailer billions of dollars in damages and go down in history as the largest gender-discrimination case in U.S. history.
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The world's largest retailer filed a motion with the court on Wednesday to toss out the nearly 10-year-old legal battle that could, in theory, encompass as many as 1.5 million former and current women employees if allowed to proceed.
In its petition for Supreme Court review, Wal-Mart argues that "the class is larger than the active-duty personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard combined—making it the largest employment class action in history by several orders of magnitude."
If Wal-Mart is found guilty of discriminating against its women employees, compensation payouts could be worth billions of dollars.
The original case, Duke v. Wal-Mart, is named after a 54-year-old "greeter" from California, Betty Duke, who was hired to work for Wal-Mart in 1994. In the original lawsuit, Duke, who still works for Wal-Mart, along with five other women employees, alleged the retailer systematically paid women less money than men for doing the same jobs and promoted men to higher positions at a faster rate, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Four previous court rulings have upheld the rights of plaintiffs to file the sex-discrimination case. Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in April voted 6-5 in favor of the six women at the core of the original lawsuit.
The ruling by the federal appeals court paved the way for the class-action suit to include any woman worker employed since 1998 by Wal-Mart.
Lawyers for Wal-Mart have long argued that a potential 1.5-million-member class-action suit is too big to give the retailer a realistic shot at self-defense. "This conflict and confusion in class-action law is harmful for everyone—employers, employees, businesses of all types and sizes, and the civil justice system," Wal-Mart attorney Theodore Boutros wrote in the company's petition for a Supreme Court review.
Wal-Mart defends its commitment to diversity, noting in its petition that "its executives discuss diversity and include it in its company handbooks and trainings. The company has diversity goals, performance assessments and penalties for EEO violations."
"The majority decision conflicts with every pertinent decision of this court and many decisions of other circuits on numerous, important, recurring issues in class-action litigation, both in discrimination cases and generally," the Wal-Mart petition said.