The Supreme Court delivered a major blow to workers and women’s rights in siding with Wal-Mart in the discrimination lawsuit against them, Dukes v. Wal-Mart. The court unanimously ruled that the current suit could not proceed as a class action suit, reversing the 2010 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. Had the decision stood it would have opened up the plaintiff class to more than 1.5 million current and former female employees, leaving Wal-Mart vulnerable to losing billions in damages.
Betty Dukes and five other current and former female Wal-Mart employees filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2001, alleging gender-based discrimination in pay, training, job assignments, and promotion. Their suit was an early, but far from exclusive, public admonishment against Wal-Mart’s unfair labor practices. The National Organization of Women (NOW) placed Wal-Mart as a “Merchant of Shame” in 2002. A 2007 report from Human Rights Watch cited the company’s systematic retaliation and intimidation tactics against union organizers and supporters.
Justice Anontin Scalia, writing for the conservative ideological majority (5-4), said there must be common elements of evidence for Dukes and her co-plaintiffs “to sue about literally millions of employment decisions at once . . . That is entirely absent here.” Although Justices Ginsberg, Sotamayor, Kagan, and Breyer dissented at the high burden placed on the plaintiffs to prove similarities to each of their claims, they ultimately agreed to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
Experts on both sides of the case agree that the Dukes v. Wal-Mart decision will impact labor relations for years to come. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) of the Senate Judiciary Committee released a statement critiquing the Court’s ruling. “Today’s decision will undoubtedly make some wonder whether the Supreme Court has now decided that some corporations are too big to be held accountable.”
Although the long-term impact has yet to be felt, the Dukes plaintiffs can still pursue their individual claims and at least two of them, Christine Kwapnoski and Betty Duke, have pledged to continue. “All I have to say is when I go back to work tomorrow, I’m going to let them know we are still fighting,” stated Kwapnoski.