Human Capital & Careers

Judge Certifies Wal-Mart Bias Suit

Lawsuit that includes 1.6 million plaintiffs can proceed as a class action.
Stephen TaubJune 23, 2004

A federal judge in San Francisco has given the go-ahead for the largest civil-rights lawsuit ever confronted by a private employer when he included 1.6 million women in a sex-discrimination case against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., according to CBS MarketWatch.

U.S. District Court Judge Martin Jenkins certified the class of all women who worked for Wal-Mart’s U.S. stores since December 26, 1998, according to Reuters. The lawsuit, initially filed in 2001, asserts that the largest U.S. private-sector employer discriminated against female employees and retaliated against those who complained, the wire service elaborated.

In a statement, Wal-Mart said the ruling “has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case. Judge Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action.” The company added that it strongly disagrees with his decision and will seek an appeal.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers assert that 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s hourly employees are female but hold fewer than 15 percent of store manager positions, according to the published account. They also assert that female workers were routinely steered toward positions such as cashier, where there was little chance for promotion, added the wire service.

According to Reuters, Home Depot Inc. settled a sex discrimination case in 1997 for $104 million, in a case that covered just 25,000 women. That works out to a little more than $4,000 per plaintiff.

If Wal-Mart were forced to pay $4,000 for each of 1.6 million women, the company would be out $6.4 billion.

“Up until now, Wal-Mart has never faced a trial like this,” said Brad Seligman, an attorney for the six lead plaintiffs, in a statement cited by Reuters. “Lawsuits by individual women had no more effect than a pinprick. Now, however, the playing field has been leveled.”