| An employee works in a Wal-Mart store in Chicago
San Francisco, Feb. 7 (Reuters): The biggest sexual discrimination case in US history advanced against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday when a top court ruled that more than a million women could join a suit charging bias in pay and promotions.
The plaintiffs estimate they could win billions of dollars in lost pay and damages and that as many as two million women who have worked for Wal-Mart in its US stores since 1998 could join a class-action lawsuit.
“It is time for Wal-Mart to face the music,” Brad Seligman, a lawyer for The Impact Fund, a non-profit group in Berkeley, California, representing the female plaintiffs, told reporters.
“Two courts now have ruled that Wal-Mart is going to have to face a jury ... We fully expect Wal-Mart to keep appealing but we’re very confident now that two courts have upheld this (class) certification,” he said.
Lead plaintiff Betty Dukes, 56, who works as a greeter at a Wal-Mart east of San Francisco, said she had let out a cheer while at work. “I am absolutely overjoyed,” Dukes said.
The 2-1 ruling by the three-judge panel of the US 9th circuit court of appeals took no position on Dukes’s claims, stressing the decision only affirmed a lower court ruling to certify the case as a class action against the world’s largest retailer.
Wal-Mart has been a lightning rod for controversy, accused of underpaying workers and undermining small business with its huge stores, charges that it has roundly denied, pointing to itself as a major source of jobs..
“This was one step in what is going to be a long process, and we are still at a very early stage in this case,” said Ted Boutrous, lead counsel for Wal-Mart’s appeal. “We are very optimistic about our chances for obtaining relief.”
In a class action, individuals bring a suit on behalf of a larger group that suffered similar harm. In the Wal-Mart case, six other women join Dukes as the plaintiffs. “Class actions have been for four decades now the critical ingredient in employment discrimination litigation,” said William Gould, a Stanford University professor of law.
Dukes said she sued the company because of neglect she and fellow female employees felt when openings for positions were advertised within her store. After working as a cashier for three years, Dukes said she advanced to a customer service representative post, a promotion that some male employee obtained even before probationary periods had expired.