Women take their case against Walmart to the Supreme Court

March 29, 2011
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Betty Dukes leads largest civil rights class action lawsuit in history against Walmart.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether female employees can continue their class action lawsuit against Walmart, the worlds’s largest retailer.  A class action is a form of lawsuit where a large group of people collectively bring a claim against a company or government, instead of each individual filing a separate suit.  Many times, it is more difficult for a individual to sue since it can take significant time, money, and legal assistance to be successful.  In a class action lawsuit, the group can aggregate their resources.  Other benefits include avoiding multiple lawsuits against the same defendant, preventing differing verdicts among plaintiffs, and enhancing the chance of actually changing the defendant’s behavior.  Critics of class action lawsuits often mention that harmed parties get little benefit, even when they win.  The attorneys, on the other hand, can collect very large fees for their work.  In today’s case, Wal-Mart Stores v Dukes, the justices heard from both sides, but are not going to decide whether or not these women were discriminated against based on their sex.  Instead, they are merely deciding if these women can continue their class action suit.  More than 500,000 women are members of this group and they must convince the justices that they are all common enough to sue together.  While the case began when cashier named Betty Dukes sued Walmart in 2001 because she claimed she was denied advancement even though she had many positive performance reviews, it has grown to become the largest civil rights class action case in U.S. history.  During today’s oral arguments, the justice seemed very skeptical of allowing this case to move forward.  Justice Kennedy asked “what the unlawful policy is” that Walmart used to deprive women of proper pay increases or advancements.  Justice Ginsburg responded that at this stage, they were not deciding if discrimination occurred, but if enough evidence existed to allow the case to move forward.  Some justices implied that even allowing the case to proceed would be unfair to Walmart.  A decision should be announced by summer.

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