Retail giant victorious in gender bias case as US supreme court rules against 1.6m workers' collective claims.
Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters
Walmart plaintiff Betty Dukes speaks to the press in March 2011.
The US supreme court has rejected the biggest sex discrimination case in history, ruling it was too large to bring to trial.
The massive gender bias case against retail giant Walmart claimed that 1.6 million of the firm's current and former employees were subject to discrimination. The suit began nearly 10 years ago when it was originally filed on behalf of employee Betty Dukes and five of her co-workers. The women claimed they had been passed over for promotions and paid less than male employees.
After a lower US court said the case could go to trial, Walmart appealed to the supreme court. The case could have cost the firm billions of dollars and would have set a precedent for gender discrimination at many corporations. Companies including Microsoft and General Electric wrote to the court expressing concern about the case.
The court rejected arguments that there was a common policy of discrimination against women at Walmart.
The plaintiffs had provided statistical evidence that women earned less money and were promoted less often across the company. But Walmart argued there was no discrimination at the firm. Its lawyers argued that a class action representing women from across the country would imply a uniform policy of discrimination, but as individual managers made hiring and promoting decisions independently there was no class-action case to answer.
Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion for the court's conservative majority sided with Walmart. He said there needed to be common elements tying together "literally millions of employment decisions at once". He said that such a common element was "entirely absent here".
TDukes and the handful of women who brought the original lawsuit may now pursue their claims on their own.
Legal expert Stuart Slotnick of New York law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney said: "This changes everything in Walmart's favour."
Slotnick added that large-scale class actions would now be far harder to bring against other companies, and that greater proof of system-wide discrimination would be needed before a major class-action lawsuit could be brought. Often such proof is only available after a case has been granted class-action status and the process of discovery – where lawyers can demand access to sensitive internal documents – begins.
"Walmart was facing tremendous pressure from a case where so many claims were being made against it in one case before one judge," said Slotnick. "Now each individual will have to find a lawyer to fight their case and I would question whether most individuals will want to do that," he said.