August 14, 2022

Justices Rule for Wal-Mart in Class-Action Bias Case

The suit claimed that Wal-Mart’s policies and practices had led to countless discriminatory decisions over pay and promotions.

The court divided 5 to 4 along ideological lines on the basic question in the case — whether the suit satisfied a requirement of the class-action rules that “there are questions of law or fact common to the class” of female employees. The court’s five more conservative justices said no, shutting down the suit and limiting the ability of other plaintiffs to band together in large class actions.

The court was unanimous, however, in saying that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had improperly sued under a part of the class-action rules that was not primarily concerned with monetary claims.

Business groups welcomed the decision, and labor and consumer groups strongly criticized it. But all agreed it was momentous.

“This is without a doubt the most important class-action case in more than a decade,” said Robin S. Conrad, a lawyer with the litigation unit of the United States Chamber of Commerce, the business advocacy group.

The court did not decide whether Wal-Mart had, in fact, discriminated against the women, only that they could not proceed as a class. The court’s decision on that issue will almost certainly affect all sorts of other class-action suits, including ones brought by investors and consumers, because it tightened the definition of what constituted a common issue for a class action and said that judges must often consider the merits of plaintiffs’ claims in deciding whether they may proceed as a class.

“You will have people invoking the decision in lots of different cases,” said Brian T. Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University specializing in class-action law. “The Supreme Court has said that it’s O.K. to look at the merits of the lawsuit to decide whether to allow it to go forward at the earliest possible moment.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the women suing Wal-Mart could not show that they would receive “a common answer to the crucial question, why was I disfavored?” He noted that the company, the nation’s largest private employer, operated some 3,400 stores, had an expressed policy forbidding discrimination and granted local managers substantial discretion.

“On its face, of course, that is just the opposite of a uniform employment practice that would provide the commonality needed for a class action,” Justice Scalia wrote. “It is a policy against having uniform employment practices.”

The case involved “literally millions of employment decisions,” Justice Scalia wrote, and the plaintiffs were required to point to “some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together.”

The plaintiffs sought to make that case with testimony from William T. Bielby, a sociologist specializing in social framework analysis.

Professor Bielby told a lower court that he had collected general “scientific evidence about gender bias, stereotypes and the structure and dynamics of gender inequality in organizations.” He said he also had reviewed extensive litigation materials gathered by the lawyers in the case.

He concluded that Wal-Mart’s culture might foster pay and other disparities through a centralized personnel policy that allowed for subjective decisions by local managers. Such practices, he argued, allowed stereotypes to sway personnel choices, making “decisions about compensation and promotion vulnerable to gender bias.”

Justice Scalia rejected the testimony, which he called crucial to the plaintiffs’ case.

“It is worlds away,” he wrote, “from ‘significant proof’ that Wal-Mart ‘operated under a general policy of discrimination.’ ”

Nor was Justice Scalia impressed with the anecdotal and statistical evidence offered.

One of the plaintiffs named in the suit, Christine Kwapnoski, had testified, for instance, that a male manager yelled at female employees but not male ones, and had instructed her to “doll up.” Justice Scalia said that scattered anecdotes — “about 1 for every 12,500 class members,” he wrote — were insignificant.

Stephanie Clifford contributed reporting.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=268dba1ef86854368c58f9fd0af9aa0c

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