Supreme Court Walmart decision effects could be far-reaching

5:37 PM, Jun 20, 2011   |    comments
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- A Supreme Court decision blocking a massive sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart may have far-reaching effects.

Among the questions the high court had to answer - were cases of alleged sexual discrimination at Wal-Mart stores across the country based on one policy or one common company decision or were the alleged cases unrelated?

In the landmark decision, the Supreme Court stopped in its tracks what would have been the largest employee class in United States legal history, ruling that the employment decisions affecting 1.6 million former and current female Wal-Mart employees, likely including some in Minnesota, can't be linked together. The decisions were made by different people, in different places, in different stores, for different reasons.

The decisions were too different, the court suggests, to call the group a class according to federal court rules.

As a class action lawsuit, Wal-Mart could have been on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. Legal experts say when courts allow a class to move forward, big companies feel pressure to settle.

The women, who accused Wal-Mart of favoring men when it came to pay and promotions, can still pursue individual lawsuits, but much less money would be at stake.

The decision sparked several protests.

Joe Daly is a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. He says the Supreme Court's decision is just the latest limit the court has placed on class action lawsuits.

Because the amount of damages at stake in an individual lawsuit might not make the case financially possible to pursue on its own, the class action tool has provided a kind of strength in numbers.

"The only way they can proceed on these small claims is to join up into a class and pursue it as one lawsuit. So I think it is going to greatly narrow the class action lawsuit," says Daly.
Large class-action lawsuits have in fact made it easier for big groups of plaintiffs to sue corporations and have led to huge payouts by tobacco, oil and food companies.

Wal-Mart issued a statement, saying it is pleased with the high court's ruling and believes the court made the right decision.


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