- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal judge yesterday approved class-action status for a sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that has become the largest private civil rights case in U.S. history.

It could represent as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees of the retailing giant.

The suit says Wal-Mart created a system that frequently pays female workers less than their male counterparts for comparable jobs and bypasses women for key promotions.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, sought to limit the scope of the lawsuit, which was filed three years ago.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said yesterday that the Bentonville, Ark.-based company will appeal the ruling and is confident that it does not discriminate against women employees.

No trial date was set.

U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins took nine months to decide whether to expand the lawsuit to include virtually all women who work or have worked at Wal-Mart’s 3,500 stories nationwide since 1998. His ruling makes the lawsuit the nation’s largest class action.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday, Wal-Mart shares fell 87 cents to $54.06.

The ruling is pivotal because it gives attorneys for the women tremendous leverage as they pursue punitive damages, back pay and other compensation.

“I think it’s a terrific victory for the women who work at Wal-Mart who have labored for years under working conditions where they have been told repeatedly they have been unsuitable for management and not suitable to make as much as men,” said Joseph Sellers, one of the attorneys.

Betty Dukes, one of the women spearheading the suit, said she was paid $8.44 per hour during her first nine years working at a variety of positions at Wal-Mart’s store in Pittsburg, Calif., while several men holding similar jobs but less seniority earned $9 per hour.

But Miss Williams said the ruling has nothing to do with the merits of the case.

“Judge Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action,” she said.

In a hearing in September, company attorneys urged Judge Jenkins to allow “mini-class-action lawsuits” targeting each outlet. Wal-Mart contends that its stores operate with so much autonomy that they are like independent businesses, with different management styles that affect the way women are paid and promoted.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Brad Seligman responded that Wal-Mart stores are “virtually identical in structure and job duties” and that the case would take only a few months to litigate.

“There is a high emphasis on a common culture, which is the glue that holds the company together,” he said.

Judge Jenkins ruled that a 1964 congressional act passed during the civil rights movement prohibits sex discrimination and that giant corporations are not immune.

In addition, the judge said, the plaintiffs presented sufficient anecdotal evidence to warrant a class-action trial.

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