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Peaceful Revolution: Wal-Mart Third Attempt to Derail Largest Sex Discrimination Class Action

04/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tomorrow, March 24th, Betty Dukes and the now two million women who are members of the largest sex-discrimination class action case, Dukes v. Wal-Mart, move one step closer to victory. A panel of 11 judges of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear Wal-Mart's latest attempt to stop this case from moving forward as a class action.

In 2001 Betty Dukes and a handful of women sued Wal-Mart, charging it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of an individual's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. They charged that women who work at Wal-Mart are paid less than men in comparable positions despite having higher performance ratings and greater seniority. They also allege that women receive fewer promotions and when promoted they wait much longer than male employees.

Following two years of discovery, including review of over a million pages of documents (including Wal-Mart's employee compensation data), depositions of both Wal-Mart executives and our clients, testimony of statisticians, a labor economist and a sociologist, the District Court certified the class finding that common questions of fact and law existed. The court also found that there was significant evidence of corporate-wide practices and policies of excessive subjectivity and gender stereotyping in personnel decisions. The class was certified for injunctive relief and punitive damages.

This is Wal-Mart's third attempt to decertify the class, and it has garnered the support of large corporate interests, as well as the Pacific Legal Foundation whose amicus brief in support of Wal-Mart sums up their view of this case. Their two points are that "class certification would violate Wal-Mart's due process rights" and that "federal courts are not the proper forum for redressing broad social justice claims or disputes between social classes."

When broad social justice goals are embedded in the law, then courts must redress these claims. Title VII was enacted with the stated goal of eliminating the societal norm which relegated women and men of color to second class status in employment, excluding them from many jobs, paying them lower wages and subjecting them to the least desirable working conditions.

Since this action was filed Wal-Mart has put forth numerous arguments seeking to defeat class certification: the case is too big and unmanageable; plaintiffs' claims are not typical; there is no evidence of common practices that harm the plaintiffs; and Wal-Mart's right to due process would be violated. The case is big because Wal-Mart, with 4,259 stores, is the nation's largest employer. Wal-Mart wants the right to defend itself against each and every woman who claims she was paid less or unfairly denied promotion opportunities.

Class actions were established as a vehicle for addressing systemic harms, and Wal-Mart and many other large businesses seek to convince the courts that justice is better served on an individual case by case basis. But given the astronomical disparity in resources between Wal-Mart and the underpaid female class members, this case presents the textbook example of why class actions have been--and still are--the only viable means of redressing systemic discrimination. A Wal-Mart employee has a better chance of winning the Lotto than garnering the resources to sue one of the largest profit-making enterprises in the world. Wal-Mart knows that if it can defeat class certification, it diminishes the likelihood it will be held accountable for its wide-spread discriminatory practices.

Until recently big business enjoyed a period of exuberance and expansion fueled by the mantra that less oversight and regulation fostered business growth and prosperity. Accounts of corporate excesses and irresponsibility (and at times criminal activity) remind us daily that an absence of regulation is not a good thing. Wal-Mart is one of the very few corporations that continues to post a profit and is performing admirably well in the rough economic environment. Our clients want Wal-Mart to succeed, and as the company's backbone, they should be sharing in its success. They look forward to the day when every woman who works or shops at Wal-Mart knows that the Company's financial success has not been made at the expense of its female workforce.

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.

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