The biggest sex discrimination lawsuit in US history has taken a big step forward with the ruling by a federal appeals court allowing a complaint brought by six women in 2001 against Wal-Mart to proceed as a class-action case. The decision means that over one million past and present female staff may seek compensation from the world's largest retailer which could ultimately run into the billions of dollars.
The panel of three judges at the San Francisco court did not pronounce on the merits of the case but upheld a 2004 lower court ruling allowing it to go forward as a class-action issue. Wal-Mart, however, vowed to continue the fight, first by asking the appeals court to reconsider the decision, and if that fails, by taking the matter to the Supreme Court in Washington.
The company contends that the circumstances of the orginal case could not apply to the two million women who have worked there since December 1998, the starting date of the lawsuit.
"Wal-Mart has a strong anti-discrimination policy," said Theodore Boutrous, the lead defence lawyer. Decisions taken over six years at 3,400 stores by thousands of individual managers "cannot be tried in one fell swoop in a nationwide class-action lawsuit," he added. But by a 2-to-1 majority the panel declared that so many women were potentially involved it was simply not practical to allow each case to go ahead on an individual basis.
Legal experts now say it is unlikely a superior court would overturn a ruling upheld twice in lower court. "The evidence, we think, is very strong. It is time for Wal-Mart to face the music," said Brad Seligman, lead lawyer for the six plaintiffs. He was ready to discuss with Wal-Mart an out- of-court settlement with the company - the usual way such class-action suits are resolved.
But this is no ordinary case. Wal-Mart is the largest company in the US, with net sales of $312bn (£156bn) in the year to January 2006, and 1.3 million employees, or "associates" in the US alone. If every woman who worked for it from 1998 to 2004 joined the suit, the final bill could be billions.
"I'm absolutely overjoyed," said Betty Dukes, the lead plaintiff and an employee for nearly 13 years, who is now a greeter at a Wal-Mart store east of San Francisco. Ms Dukes first sued the company because she and her fellow female employees felt they were systematically overlooked when job openings were advertised inside her store.
After working as a cashier for three years, she became a customer service representative - a promotion, she maintains, that some male staff obtained even before they had completed their standard probationary period.
The class action suit is one of several developments in recent years to tarnish Wal-Mart's reputation as an employer. It has been accused of breaking immigration laws and failing to provide lower-paid employees with adequate healthcare coverage.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited