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Years-Long Legal Battle Against Wal-Mart Heads to the U.S. Supreme Court

A 2001 gender discrimination case against retail giant Wal-Mart has been on a decade-long winding road that finally ended up at the United States Supreme Court earlier this year. The case was filed in a California federal court in 2001 by named plaintiff Betty Dukes and five other female Wal-Mart workers and was certified as a class action shortly after being filed.

That same class certification is what has dragged the case through several levels of appeals - Wal-Mart is contesting the trial judge's decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed as a class action that could eventually involve well over 1.5 million previous and current female workers. Wal-Mart has fought the class certification for years, taking their grievances through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals - who agreed with the lower court's decision to allow the case to proceed as what would be the largest civil-rights class action in history - and now to the Supreme Court, who is expected to make a decision during its summer session.

The case is a fairly straightforward allegation of gender discrimination; the plaintiffs claim that Wal-Mart unfairly discriminated against women in all areas of the country by:

  • Paying them less than similarly situated male counterparts
  • Refusing to give them training opportunities needed for career growth
  • Not considering them for special projects and other job assignments that would foster leadership skills
  • Passing them over for promotions

As evidenced by the decade-long legal battle, Wal-Mart vehemently denies the existence of companywide systematic gender discrimination. They give as evidence the fact that there are clear company policies prohibiting discrimination and giving the discretion for hiring, firing and promotion opportunities to the manager of each retail location. They say that the fact that there are 3,400 stores around the world - each with its own leadership structure - means that there cannot possibly be a companywide pattern of discrimination unless there was evidence that the female employees in each store were being treated similarly, something the company denies.

No matter how the Supreme Court decides the class certification issue, it is likely that this case will have an impact far beyond the parties involved. The case could likely serve as the catalyst for renewed discussions about the need for Wal-Mart employees to unionize. If you are being discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of your gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, national origin, age or a disability, contact an experienced employment law attorney in your area to learn more about your legal rights and options.

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