The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a massive gender discrimination case, involving retail giant Wal Mart, that could have a major impact on businesses and rights of employees across the United States.
The Supreme Court appeared skeptical as they heard oral arguments on a case determining whether female employees of Wal Mart can together pursue allegations that managers discriminated against them on pay and promotions.
The highest U.S. court will decide whether 1.5 million women can contest their case in a class action lawsuit (a suit filed on behalf of a large, collective group) against the world's largest retailer. The ruling could set a new precedent for labor discrimination cases in the United States. And if the court allows the case to go forward, billions of dollars in damages are at stake.
The Supreme Court indicated they had problems with the lower court's ruling against the company. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key vote on the nation's highest court, questioned what the unlawful policy was. Other justices expressed concern about whether a case of this size would be fair to Wal Mart.
The company's attorney, Theodore Boutrous, argued the female employees do not have enough in common to bring a single case. Outside the Supreme Court, he told reporters he was pleased with the issues the court focused on.
"The other thing you saw today, the justices were focused on: the terrible due process problems with the theory that the plaintiffs have used here. Individual women would not get to tell their stories. Wal Mart would not be able to put on its defenses," he said.
Joseph Sellers, the lawyer representing the women, said his clients were exposed to company-wide discrimination around the country and do not make enough to individually bring this case to court. "This case offers Wal Mart as well as our clients a economical, efficient way to challenge a common practice across the stores, rather than litigating all these cases across the country," he said.
Betty Dukes, the lead plaintiff on the case, filed the suit with five others after seeing patterns of discrimination as a female employee. "Since we have filed our lawsuits in 2001, I have heard from numerous of women basically the same story as mine of disparity in treatment and lack of promotion and in lack of pay," she said.
But Wal Mart's executive vice president of human resources, Gisel Ruiz, said she is proof the company has a long history of promoting and advancing women. "I joined the company in 1992 as a management trainee, in Madera, California, and in less than four years I was promoted to store manager. I have had a very positive experience at Wal Mart like thousands of other women and not being able to opt out of the case is wrong," she said.
Groups of supporters of the women gathered in front of the Supreme Court early Tuesday as the oral arguments went on inside.
The women have gained the support of the National Women's Law Center and 18 other organizations. Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, was among the demonstrators. "The case is actually about whether the women of Wal Mart have the right to form a class and pursue their class action, but it can have implications on whether anyone can form a class to get redress from these huge, extremely well-funded corporate lawbreakers," she said.
Wal Mart has found support from companies such as General Electric, Intel, Microsoft and Bank of America.
Hans Bader a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute said this case will make companies more vulnerable to facing massive class action lawsuits.
"It just allows a kind of weak national class action to be brought, even though the employees don't have a lot in common, and on the basis of very weak evidence. If you put those two together, you could bring a national class action, like this, against basically against any large company in America," he said.
The Supreme Court could decide the case by the end of June.