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Court block Walmart lawsuit

Court blocks Wal-mart lawsuit

Decision could limit bias claims

Women rallied in March outside the Supreme Court, pressing their bias claim against the 8,000-store firm. (Jacquelyn Martin/ Associated Press/ File)

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press / June 21, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court blocked the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in US history yesterday, 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 the nation’s huge companies.

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 Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. By a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, the court also said there were too many women in too many jobs to wrap into one lawsuit.

“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 the big Wall Street firm Goldman-Sachs & Co., electronics giant Toshiba America Inc., and Cigna Healthcare Inc. also face class-action claims from women they employ.

“This is an extremely important victory not just for Wal-mart, but for all companies that do business in the United States,’’ Boutrous said.

The assessment was similar on the other side of the issue. 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.

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

The women’s lawyers said they were considering filing thousands of discrimination claims against Wal-mart, but they acknowledged the court had dealt a fatal blow to their initial plan.

In a statement, Wal-mart said, “The court today unanimously rejected class certification and, as the majority made clear, the plaintiffs’ claims were worlds away from showing a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy.’’

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.

Scalia said there needed to be common elements tying together “literally millions of employment decisions at once.’’

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.

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.