Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Supremes to Hear 9-Year Old Wal-Mart Pay Discrimination Case

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the 9-year old class action gender bias suit originally brought by Betty Dukes. The case, fashioned as Wal-Mart Stores Inc v Betty Dukes, et al, relates to claims of gender discrimination with regard to both compensation and promotions. It is particularly controversial in that the case has moved forward (through the 9th Circuit which is based in California and known by many in the legal community for making particularly outlandish employer-unfriendly rulings) despite the plaintiffs in the class action being from a broad variety of US geographies.

Supporters of plaintiffs argue that this is the only way that large companies can be held accountable for their misdeeds. Opponents argue, among other things, that allowing litigation of this sort to go forward results in massive litigation costs for the defendant and could result in extreme damage awards or settlements regardless of the guilt of defendants.

From a purely personal standpoint, and without regard for the legalities as I continue to neither be an attorney nor have any formal legal training. I can see merits for each side of the argument. In cases like this, companies such as Wal-Mart could be inclined to settle cases where they truly have no guilt because the cost of settlement might be less than the cost of litigation. On the other hand, plaintiffs going it alone or in small groups bear a tremendous cost of litigating a matter of this sort. In cases where I have relevant knowledge, corporate defendants have a history of filing motion upon motion to bury defendants in both paperwork and legal fees to respond to the motions. For an individual or even a small class to carry such litigation to fruition may have prohibitive costs.

How the Supreme Court will rule on this one is anybody's guess. Yes, the court does still have a 5-4 conservative (generally business-friendly) bias, but this could easily be a case in which the court decides to send a message one way or the other. We'll see in mid-2011.

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