WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court blocked the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history on Monday, 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 other huge companies, too.
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 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. By a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the court also said there were too many women in too many jobs at Wal-Mart 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 if it had had to answer claims by the huge group of women.
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 about the ruling.
“We still are determined to go forward to present our case in court. We believe we will prevail there,” said Dukes, a greeter at the Walmart in Pittsburg, Calif.
“All I have to say is when I go back to work tomorrow, I’m going to let them know we are still fighting,” said Kwapnoski. an assistant manager at a Sam’s Club in Concord, Calif. Both women spoke on a conference call with reporters.
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.”
Scalia said there needed to be common elements tying together “literally millions of employment decisions at once.” He said that in the lawsuit against the nation’s largest private employer, “That is entirely absent here.”