U.S. court blocks sex discrimination suit

The Supreme Court blocked the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history on Monday, siding with Wal-Mart and against up to 1.6 million female workers in a decision that makes it harder to mount large-scale bias claims against other huge companies, too.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court blocked the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history on Monday, siding with Wal-Mart and against up to 1.6 million female workers in a decision that makes it harder to mount large-scale bias claims against other huge companies, too.

The justices all agreed that the lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. could not proceed as a class action in its current form, reversing a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. By a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the court also said there were too many women in too many jobs at Wal-Mart to wrap into one lawsuit.

A class action is a form of lawsuit in which a group of people collectively bring a claim to court.

“Because respondents provide no convincing proof of a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy, we have concluded that they have not established the existence of any common question,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in his majority opinion.

Theodore Boutrous Jr., Wal-Mart’s lawyer, said the decision also would affect pending class-action claims against Costco and others.

Companies as varied as Goldman-Sachs & Co., electronics giant Toshiba America Inc., and Cigna Healthcare Inc. also face class-action claims from women they employ.

Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said, “The court has told employers that they can rest easy, knowing that the bigger and more powerful they are, the less likely their employees will be able to join together to secure their rights.” With 2.1 million workers in more than 8,000 stores worldwide, Wal-Mart could have faced billions of dollars in damages.

The handful of employees who brought the case may pursue claims on their own, with much less money at stake and less pressure on Wal-Mart to settle. Two of the plaintiffs, Christine Kwapnoski and Betty Dukes, vowed to continue their fight, even as they expressed disappointment about the ruling.

“We still are determined to go forward to present our case in court. We believe we will prevail there,” said Dukes.

“All I have to say is when I go back to work tomorrow, I’m going to let them know we are still fighting,” said Kwapnoski

The high court’s majority agreed with Wal-Mart’s argument that being forced to defend the treatment of female employees regardless of the jobs they hold or where they work is unfair.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court’s four liberal justices, said there was more than enough to unite the claims. “Wal-Mart’s delegation of discretion over pay and promotions is a policy uniform throughout all stores,” Ginsburg said.

The other women on the court, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg’s opinion.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats criticized the ruling and called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to reduce wage disparities between men and women.

Business interests, including nearly two dozen large companies, lined up with Wal-Mart, while civil rights, women’s and consumer groups sided with the women plaintiffs.

Both sides painted the case as extremely consequential. The business community said that a ruling for the women would lead to a flood of class-action lawsuits. Supporters of the women suggested a decision in favour of Wal-Mart could remove a valuable weapon for fighting all sorts of discrimination.

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