The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it would decide if the largest sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit in U.S. history against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. can proceed, a case involving women workers who seek billions of dollars in damages.
The nation’s highest court agreed to hear an appeal by the world’s largest retailer and the largest private U.S. employer arguing the claims of as many as 1.5 million current and former female employees were too diverse to proceed as a single class-action lawsuit.
The justices decided to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in California that upheld the class-action certification in the lawsuit alleging discrimination against every woman employed over the past decade at the company’s 3,400 U.S. stores.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case, which immediately became the most important business dispute before the justices this term, in March, with a ruling likely by the end of June.
The original lawsuit by seven women, filed in 2001, claimed that Wal-Mart paid female workers less than male colleagues and gave them fewer promotions. Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart denied that it discriminated on the basis of sex.
At issue in the Supreme Court appeal is the question of class certification, not the merits of the sex-discrimination allegations. The lawsuit has not yet gone to trial.
Large class-action lawsuits make it easier for big groups of plaintiffs to sue corporations and have led to huge payouts by tobacco makers, and oil and food companies. Companies have sought to limit such lawsuits to individual or small groups of plaintiffs.
The Supreme Court, with a conservative majority that has often ruled for businesses, in recent years has been highly skeptical of large class-action lawsuits.
(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Derek Caney, Dave Zimmerman)