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Wal-Mart V. Dukes makes U.S. history

It all began in 1999 when Betty Dukes, then a Wal-Mart greeter, got into an argument with her boss over her frustration with how the company was treating her. “I wanted to advance. I wanted to make that money,” she said in an interview with the Huffington Post in 2010. However, according to her, that is a difficult goal for women employed by Wal-Mart to attain.

This prompted Dukes to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of her peers, including all women who have been employed by the company between December 26, 1998 and present day. This figure includes as many as 1.5 million people, making this the largest class-action lawsuit in United States history.

Dukes and five other women claim that the Bentonville, Ark. retailer’s policies lead to a lower pay and a longer wait for promotion to management positions for women than men with comparable jobs. The attorney for the plaintiff, Joseph Sellers, says that the reason for this is that the corporation has no established guidelines regarding equal pay and opportunity.

Store managers, who are more subjective, have too much freedom in making these decisions. Sellers claims that “there is this broad discretion given (to) the managers,” but, “they do not make their decisions in a vacuum.”

However, the actual question argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29, 2011 was not whether or not these women are being treated unfairly. Instead, the Court must determine if Dukes and those who filed this suit with her can represent such a large group of people.

Wal-Mart has contested the suit, citing Rule 23(b) of the federal rules of civil procedure. It claims that a group of this size is unmanageable and that the 1.5 million women who are represented in this case do not have enough in common to file a lawsuit together. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld the class certification three times since 2001.

Still, the justices seemed skeptical about what Dukes and her colleagues are attempting to do. Should it be determined that a group of 1.5 million can file a suit as a single class, it could be problematic for American corporations. The issue is that this would allow enormous groups of employees, essentially entire demographics, to file a suit together against the company if just a few managers violate civil rights laws. 

This led Chief Justice John Roberts to remark that this might just be an error on the part of a bad manager and not necessarily company policy. After all, “you’re going to have some bad apples.”

Justice Samuel Alito echoed this fear when he noted that Wal-Mart is a “company that is absolutely typical of the entire American work force,” which means that “every single company is in violation of Title VII.”

If the class certification for Betty Dukes and her 1.5 million co-plaintiffs is upheld by the highest court, then it seems inevitable that there will be similar class-action suits to follow. All of this will remain speculation until the Supreme Court reaches its decision, which is expected to be delivered in June.

Sources: NYTimes

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