The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a massive gender discrimination case, involving retail giant Walmart, that could have a major impact on businesses and rights of employees across the United States.
The Supreme Court appeared skeptical as justices heard oral arguments on a case determining whether female employees of Walmart can together pursue allegations that managers discriminated against them on pay and promotions.
The highest U.S. court will decide whether 1.5 million women can contest their case in a class action lawsuit, a suit filed on behalf of a large, collective group, against the world’s largest retailer. The ruling could set a new precedent for labor discrimination cases in the United States. And if the court allows the case to go forward, billions of dollars in damages are at stake.
The Supreme Court indicated they had problems with a lower court’s ruling against the company. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key vote on the nation’s highest court, questioned what the unlawful policy was. Other justices expressed concern about whether a case of this size would be fair to Walmart.
The company’s attorney, Theodore Boutrous, argued the female employees do not have enough in common to bring a single case. Outside the Supreme Court, he told reporters he was pleased with the issues the court focused on.
“The other thing you saw today, the justices were focused on: the terrible due process problems with the theory that the plaintiffs have used here. Individual women would not get to tell their stories. Walmart would not be able to put on its defenses,” he said.
Joseph Sellers, the lawyer representing the women, said his clients were exposed to company-wide discrimination around the country and do not make enough to individually bring this case to court. “This case offers Walmart as well as our clients an economical, efficient way to challenge a common practice across the stores, rather than litigating all these cases across the country,” he said.
Betty Dukes, the lead plaintiff on the case, filed the suit with five others after she said she saw patterns of discrimination as a female employee. “Since we have filed our lawsuits in 2001, I have heard from numerous women with basically the same story as mine of disparity in treatment and lack of promotion and in lack of pay,” she said.
But Walmart’s executive vice president of human resources, Gisel Ruiz, said she is proof the company has a long history of promoting and advancing women. “I joined the company in 1992 as a management trainee, in Madera, California, and in less than four years I was promoted to store manager. I have had a very positive experience at Walmart like thousands of other women and not being able to opt out of the case is wrong,” she said.
The Supreme Court could decide the case by the end of June.