- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

In a landmark decision hailed by major business groups, the Supreme Court quashed what would have been the largest class-action employment lawsuit in U.S. history, affecting potentially 1.6 million female employees of giant retailer Wal-Mart.

In the most closely watched business case of the high court’s term, business interests said the decision will provide a brake on catchall class-action suits that target some of the nation’s biggest employers.

“Defendants should have the opportunity to present individualized evidence to show they complied with the law,” said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of National Chamber Litigation Center, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Too often the class-action device is twisted and abused to force businesses to choose between settling meritless lawsuits or potentially facing financial ruin.”

The court unanimously reversed a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Wal-Mart case could go ahead as a collective class action, and by a 5-4 margin also held that there were too many female plaintiffs in too many different jobs to justify a class-action lawsuit.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that a class-action case needed to find a common theme in “literally millions of employment decisions at once.”

“That is entirely absent here,” he wrote.

Company critics, citing data dating back to 2001, said Wal-Mart systematically excluded women from upper-level management positions: Just 14 percent of the company store managers were women at the time, while four out of five lower-level hourly-wage supervisors were female.

Officials at Arkansas-based Wal-Mart welcomed the decision while defending their treatment and pay scales for female workers.

Wal-Mart “has a long history of providing advancement opportunities for our female associates,” said company Executive Vice President Gisel Ruiz. “In fact, we have created specific training and mentoring programs to help prepare women for opportunities at all levels in our company.”

But company critics and women’s rights activists sharply condemned the ruling.

“The women of Wal-Mart — together with women everywhere — will now face a far steeper road to challenge and correct pay and other forms of discrimination in the workplace,” said Marcia Greenberger, National Women’s Law Center co-president.

The ruling, in a case known as Wal-Mart v. Duke, came in a decadelong legal battle that started in California with six women who sought compensation for company promotion practices that they claimed favored men, despite the women’s contention that their work was equal to that of their male co-workers.

Ana Rodriguez, executive director of the West Coast health clinic Access Women’s Health Justice, said the decision would force female workers to find new ways to fight unequal treatment.

“I think the ruling will impact women organizing together,” she said, but she said Wal-Mart’s reach and customer base would make it difficult to target with a boycott.

Wal-Mart is probably one of the biggest employers, especially in rural areas,” said Ms. Rodriguez. “If you boycott, it may be detrimental to the women who work there.”

Pro-labor Democrats also attacked the ruling. Said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, “Today’s ruling underscores the need to act boldly and strongly on behalf of women’s rights.”

In another major business-oriented decision, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled out a federal lawsuit Monday by states and conservation groups trying to force cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.

The court, siding with the Obama administration, said that the authority to seek reductions in emissions rests with the Environmental Protection Agency, not the courts.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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