When the Walmart lawsuit was first filed in 2001, six women claimed the retail chain discriminated against female employees when it came to pay and promotions. As news of the suit spread, more women joined, turning the case into the nation's largest-ever class action lawsuit.
The issue that came before the US Supreme Court, however, was not the merits of the case itself but whether or not it could proceed as a class action. Did the group qualify as a class by proving that they suffered similarly from existing company policies, and could such a big lawsuit pursue individual damages for the estimated 1.5 million Walmart employees affected?
In December 2010, the US Supreme Court agreed to consider a massive gender discrimination suit against Walmart filed by current and former female employees. But the Court's focus would not be on the women's claims that they'd been passed over many times for promotions and were earning less than their male counterparts, or that 65% of hourly employees were female yet only 33% were management level employees. Instead, the nine justices were concerned with one critical aspect of the case -- whether or not it could move forward as a class action suit.
With the recent addition of Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court moves into a new phase with fully one-third of its members now female. As the Walmart sex discrimination case proves, although the Court continues to be controlled by a pro-business conservative majority, the female minority is finding its voice in addressing issues of gender discrimination in a way that only a woman who has experienced gender bias can fully understand.
When oral arguments were heard in Walmart v. Dukes case on March 29, 2011, the fact that one-third of the Supreme Court was now female became apparent during questioning. Always an outspoken Justice on matters of gender and discrimination, Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold back in her comments and was supported by Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan, each of whom has felt the sting of sex discrimination in her journey to the nation's highest court. But the statements of Justice Antonin Scalia hinted at the mindset of the male justices who did not buy into the gender bias argument.
Bigger is better only for corporations, not for lawsuits as the Supreme Court demonstrated in its ruling in the Walmart v. Dukes case. Reversing the decision of a lower court, the Supreme Court determined that the largest gender-discrimination case in U.S. history could not be brought as a class action suit because it would involve too many women, in too many jobs within Walmart.
What does it mean to women workers now that the Supreme Court has turned down the biggest class action lawsuit in history? Nothing good as the ruling has made it even harder for women to prove that sex discrimination exists in the workplace. Denied the ability to pursue litigation as a class, women will be forced to shoulder the burdens of lawsuits individually, and make their cases with much less authority. It may have begun with Walmart v. Dukes, but the domino effect will impact many other cases involving large corporations currently making their way through the judicial system