June 20 2011
Stories: Women Lose in Walmart Suit Ruling
You’ve heard about firms that are too big to fail. Now the Supreme Court has declared that some companies are too big to be sued for discrimination. On Monday, the court threw out Dukes v. Walmart, the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in history, waged against the world’s biggest company, essentially on the grounds that it dealt with too many women. In doing so, the court has made it much harder for employees to challenge bias that results from a broad corporate culture instead of the misdeeds of a few individuals. Ironically, the wide range of Walmart’s alleged discrimination, coming from lots of managers in lots of places, became the reason the company was let off the hook.
Given the current court’s enthusiastic deference to corporations, most observers expected Monday’s ruling. Still, the facts of the case were stark enough to create uncertainty. On Friday, Best Buy settled a class-action lawsuit charging discrimination against women, African Americans, and Latino employees, in part out of concern about the Dukes verdict. “Settlements are often reached when there is uncertainty, and both sides feel that they are at some risk,” the plaintiff’s lawyer, James Finberg, told Reuters. “So depending upon how the Dukes case comes out, we could be either better off or worse off. And I think Best Buy viewed it similarly.”
Best Buy needn’t have worried; the Supreme Court has now shielded companies from class-action lawsuits in significant ways. The decision “encourages employers to simply allow discrimination to take place unchecked throughout their workplace, and the bigger they are, the easier it will be do that,” said Marcia Greenberger, founder of the National Women’s Law Center.
The ruling had two parts. The first, which was unanimous, dealt with the somewhat arcane matter of the rule under which the class—the group of people banding together in the lawsuit—was certified. But the judges broke along familiar ideological lines about whether the suit should have been able to proceed at all. That 5-4 split more...