Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court rejected one of the largest class-action suits in history. The group of women who sued Wal-Mart ten years ago on the grounds that women are regularly paid less, and given fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, were told that a sex discrimination charge could not be brought as they were too spread out geographically and their job classifications too diverse to warrant bringing suit as a group.
Okay, I know it’s been a few good years since I went to law school, but isn’t’ it called discrimination when you have a large group of women receiving differential treatment compared to their male, and equally talented, colleagues? Maybe I’m just not interpreting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 correctly – it’s possible…
In a note from the case:
It is impossible therefore to view the Dukes decision–and the conflicting opinions it generated from two of the most senior justices on the Court–without sensing the impact of the continuing gender gulf in America. It exists still on the Court, it inhabits still the nooks and crannies of the law, and there is little doubt, even short of a class-action trial, that it’s a part of the atmosphere at Walmart (“senior management often refer to female associates as ‘Little Janie Qs,’” Justice Ginsburg noted among the allegations). Maybe that is the legacy of this Dukes case; it doesn’t tell us how far we’ve come in addressing gender bias in the law, it tells us how much further we have to go.
Michelle Goldberg, of The Daily Beast, focusing primarily on the actual charges of sex discrimination in the suit, argued that the decision was a loss not just for the women of Wal-Mart, but for women everywhere. “Monday’s ruling didn’t really deal with the underlying evidence of pervasive discrimination at Walmart, which has been well documented both statistically and anecdotally,” she wrote. “Women make up more than 70 percent of Walmart’s employees but only a third of its salaried managers, though women at the company have lower turnover rates and higher performance ratings than men.” In the end, Goldberg saw the decision as a continuation of the court’s poor civil-rights record.
This was in keeping with the conservative majority’s extremely narrow approach to civil-rights law. “One of the constants of this court, they don’t believe that discrimination exists unless you have direct and obvious proof,” said Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. “They don’t believe in proof by statistics or proof by corporate culture. They are extremely demanding of plaintiffs for proof, and it’s very hard to find that kind of proof.”
The New York Times, in its editorial Wal-Mart Wins. Workers Lose., discussed the issues of class action and sex discrimination go together in a suit like this.
Without a class action, it will be very difficult for most of the women potentially affected to pursue individual claims. The average wages lost per year for a member of the rejected Wal-Mart class are around $1,100 — too little to give lawyers an incentive to represent such an individual. For the plaintiffs, for groups seeking back pay in class actions, and for class actions in general, it was a bad day in court.
What’s your opinion? Will this affect you or yours directly? Do you work for a large corporation and should you be worried? Comment and let us know…