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In late August, 2010, Wal Mart appealed a decision handed down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retail giant could move forward.  The case is waiting to go before the United States Supreme Court in early 2011.  The decision says that more than one million current and former employees of Wal Mart, who are women, can sue the company.  This is the largest employment class action suit ever filed in the history of the U.S., says attorney and founder A. Harrison Barnes.  There is much at stake.

Originally filed in 2001 by an Oklahoma woman, Betty Dukes, and with six other female plaintiffs, the women were seeking punitive damages and back pay for what was described as “gendered wage discrepancies for all employees of Wal Mart since 1998”.  Among other things, the suit claimed their male counterparts earn “systematically higher wages and receive more frequent promotions at Wal Mart, regardless of women’s competitive quality of work and seniority”.

While the appeal does not directly address or dispute the claim, Wal Mart has nonetheless requested the court toss the case because the plaintiffs “have little in common but their sex and this lawsuit”.  Needless to say, comments such as those have raised more than a few eyebrows – and tempers, too.  A. Harrison Barnes says there is billions at stake if the company loses.  This particular appeal is slated to go before the Supreme Court in Fall, 2010.

Eric Dreiband, who is a former general counsel with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calls it an “extremely significant case” and says “the rights of millions of women are at stake”.  A. Harrison Barnes agrees.  The world’s largest private employer stands to lose far more than its profits.  It also insists there “is no disparity in pay based on gender”.  It insists it offers an excellent place for women to work and has been recognized as “a leader in fostering the advancement and success of women in the workplace”.

The lawsuit contends that women were not promoted as often as their male co-workers and must wait longer for promotions they are offered.

The case does jeopardize an individual female employee who might be attempting to sue since she would lose rights to present the facts of her specific case and could potentially miss out on the right to seek compensatory damages, since the class action is seeking only punitive damages and back pay.

Many lawyers are saying there likely won’t be any winners in this case since it will affect employees not only throughout Wal Mart, but the American employment sector as a whole.  Still, for those women who believe they were treated unfairly, it comes down to so much more than money and promotions.  “That”, says the founder, “always makes it personal”.

This is most certainly one case all eyes within the legal sector – and law classrooms – around the country are monitoring closely.

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