Too Big to Sue? High Court Thwarts Wal-Mart Gender Discrimination Case

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In These Times

Too Big to Sue? High Court Thwarts Wal-Mart Gender Discrimination Case

As legions of Walmart workers shuffled into work on Monday, the Supreme Court smacked down a major class-action lawsuit that might potentially have shifted the legal landscape on women's rights in the workplace.

The gender-discrimination lawsuit against the world's most notorious retail giant had been pending for years. Now the Court's majority opinion has declared that, in light of "Walmart's size and geographical scope," the plaintiffs could not provide "significant proof that Wal-Mart operated under a general policy of discrimination. That is entirely absent here."

And with that, Justice Antonin Scalia rendered perhaps hundreds of thousands of working women absent from the discussion on gender discrimination in today's sink-or-swim economy. The split in the most significant part of the judgment, the class-action aspect, was five to four, putting all the female justices in the minority. The division ironically suggested a lack of self-reflection on how structural gender discrimination works in powerful institutions.

The core of the decision is not about whether Walmart did indeed discriminate. There's ample evidence of that, though, including records of pay scales skewed against women, unequal hiring patterns in managerial positions, and expert testimony on the social implications of these trends. The Court's opinion doesn't examine that, but rather whether America's discount paradise can be held legally accountable for systematic mistreatment of female workers.

The ruling was a high-five moment for the right, as it allows Wal-Mart executives to skirt a gargantuan liability. Going forward, the decision will in many circumstances leave the women on their own in seeking legal redress, since their claims can't be in a mega-suit. Although Wal-Mart's main defense is that it's not responsible for lower managers who violate non-discrimination rules, the plaintiffs alleged a crime of omission: that the corporation failed in its responsibility to prevent bias against women as a matter of policy. A statment from the case sums up their position:

The discrimination to which they have been subjected is common to all Walmart’s female employees. The basic theory of their case is that a strong and uniform “corporate culture” permits bias against women to infect, perhaps subconsciously, the discretionary decision-making of each one of Walmart’s thousands of managers—thereby making every woman at the company the victim of one common discriminatory practice.

By enabling discrimination, the suit contended, Walmart should be held liable all the way through the command chain, from the exec in the boardroom down to the greeter at the store entryway. That's where lead plaintiff Betty Dukes got stuck. She was demoted to greeter after working higher positions at a Pittsburgh, California store, she alleged, primarily because management retaliated against her for formally complaining about her treatment. Male colleagues who behaved similarly, Dukes says, never faced the same discipline.

There's also Edith Arana. The former employee, who like Dukes is a black woman, claimed that after five years of working at Walmart in Duarte, California, she sought management training and was told, “there’s no place in management for people like you.”

After leaving the job, Arana told PBS NewsHour in 2004:

I have never seen a man that has, like, struggled, done everything he was supposed to do, worked overtime, sacrificed his family time, come in on days that he wasn't supposed to—I've never seen a man that would go through that and not get what he was promised. But the women, they do it over and over and over again.

The setback in this suit doesn't mean women can't go after Walmart for discriminatory practices. We may in the near future see more targeted, smaller-scale litigation (including suits related to racial discrimination)—or perhaps even more grassroots political pressure campaigns on this issue.

But the decision will no doubt discourage legal action by giving many women no choice but to go through the arduous process of filing suit on an individual, not group basis. Meanwhile, Walmart will continue to expand its influence on the workforce gender divide by employing more female employees, and subjecting more women to the indignities of discrimination, gradually eclipsing workers' civil rights in the shadow of the Big Box industry.

Following the ruling, Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families warned in a statement that the case would open the door to more discrimination with impunity in the corporate world:

Today’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent that will make it easier for employers – especially large ones – to discriminate against their employees while, at the same time, making it harder for workers to come together to challenge it. This creation of a potential ‘large company’ exception to our civil rights laws is a perversion of justice.

In other words, the bigger the company, the larger the workforce, the greater the potential for discrimination, the deeper the economic injustice throughout our communities... and the smaller a worker's chances of getting her day in court.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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