On March 29, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments on the Wal-Mart employment-discrimination case, Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which could have significant implications for the plaintiffs, the company and other potential employment-discrimination lawsuits across the country.
The Supreme Court will not rule on whether the alleged discrimination actually occurred. Rather, the Court will decide if the few plaintiffs involved at the start of the case should remain certified as a class in a class-action lawsuit, representing a potentially-huge number of class members claiming they experienced gender discrimination while working for Wal-Mart.
According to Caren Goldberg, a professor at American University’s Kogod School of business, the question before the court is essentially whether the corporation should be held responsible for the company’s culture regarding women’s career-advancement opportunities and salaries at its 3,400 U.S. stores or whether that responsibility is capped at lower, individual store-manager or regional-manager levels.
If the corporation should be responsible for potential discrimination, a class-action lawsuit is appropriate. If the alleged discrimination is limited to specific stores or regions and the corporation could not be responsible for it, the current lawsuit may not apply nationwide, rendering a class-action lawsuit inappropriate.
If the case remains certified as a class-action lawsuit, the result could have far-reaching implications for other corporations facing allegations of discrimination from any protected group, such as women or racial minority groups. In addition, more than one million women have worked for Wal-Mart since the case began in 1998 to the present day; damages awarded to those class-action plaintiffs if the corporation is found responsible for discrimination would be a significant liability.
If the class is de-certified, though, plaintiffs lose the collective strength they have in a class-action lawsuit. The average plaintiff may not be able to afford a trial over alleged discrimination by one of the world’s largest corporations. Also, even if an individual trial is pursued and won, that plaintiff’s success would not have the same effect on institutional change as thousands or millions of successful plaintiffs would.