On June 20, 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its much-anticipated opinion in the class action suit Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes. Plaintiffs in the case alleged that Wal-Mart was biased against female employees because of the discretion given to local supervisors throughout its stores to make decisions concerning pay and promotions. Plaintiffs did not allege that Wal-Mart employed a general policy of discrimination; rather, they contended that the discretion given to local supervisors has resulted in a lack of uniform employment practices and has produced disparate effects that disfavor female employees. If allowed to proceed, the class could have included as many as 1.5 million former and current Wal-Mart employees.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court overturned the Court of Appeals’ decision and held that the class action should not have been certified because the Plaintiffs did not present common questions of law or fact. The Court reasoned that because Plaintiffs were suing about millions of independent employment decisions not bound by any uniform policy, their claims were not based upon a common contention capable of class-wide resolution. The Court also held that Plaintiffs were not entitled to bring claims for back pay under the rule allowing for injunctive relief. As a result of the Court’s decision, Plaintiffs will have to bring smaller lawsuits or individual claims against Wal-Mart.
How much the Wal-Mart decision will impact future class action suits is unclear. The decision may force plaintiffs seeking relief from large employers to bring smaller lawsuits at the local or regional level. For assistance with your employment law issues, please contact Titus Brueckner & Levine PLC.