A U.S. appeals court has ruled that a district court can decide a lawsuit brought by Wal-Mart workers charging that the company unfairly threatened to deny benefits to employees who unionize, according to the Associated Press.

Central to the case is a “union exclusion clause” that Wal-Mart had in its benefits booklets for employees. The clause declared that unionized employees were ineligible for profit-sharing, 401(k), and health plans, the wire service noted.

Although Wal-Mart later changed the wording in the benefits publications, the case still must be decided, the appeals court reportedly ruled. That’s because the plaintiffs still have outstanding claims for damages and attorneys’ fees.

The lawsuit was filed by some employees of a Kingman, Arizona, Wal-Mart who sought a vote to unionize in October 2000. The appeals court stated that the vote never took place because the workers filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and in court charging that Wal-Mart had thwarted their effort by threatening to withhold benefits, according to the AP.

The district court had ruled that the dispute fell under the sole authority of the labor relations board. The NLRB reportedly brought Wal-Mart before an administrative law court, which in 2003 ordered the company to drop the exclusion clause after finding that it was meant ”to ensure, to the extent [Wal-Mart] could, that its employees were fearful of losing their benefits, and thus continued to reject union representation,” according to the wire service.

Wal-Mart appealed the administrative law court decision and was still in settlement talks with the NLRB as of yesterday, according to the AP. The appeals court, however, ruled that the district court has jurisdiction over the case even though there is a workers’ complaint pending with the NLRB.

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