As presaged by its questioning in oral arguments on the case in March, the US Supreme Court today ruled that a sweeping gender-discrimination lawsuit against Walmart — on behalf of as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees — couldn’t proceed as one large class action because the potential plaintiffs didn’t actually meet the legal definition of a class.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the plaintiffs required significant proof that the retail giant operated under a general policy of discrimination. “That is entirely absent here,” he said. The Court also held that the plaintiffs’ claims for potentially billions of dollars in back pay couldn’t proceed as a class action because Walmart was entitled to treat each individual’s claims separately.
The ruling, while anticipated, is a huge victory for the company as it continues to fight the perception that it is a bastion of chauvinism.
Walmart repeatedly has pointed to thousands of women who have climbed the promotional ladder inside the company, only to be parried by plaintiffs’ lawyers, ex-employees and activists who allege a thoroughgoing pattern of discrimination at its stores across the United States. Indeed, its statement on the news by the brand's US EVP of People, Gisele Ruiz, reiterated that point:
Clearly today’s ruling in the Dukes case has important legal implications but just as important, it pulls the rug out from under the accusations made against Walmart over the last 10 years. Every female associate and every customer can feel even better about the company as a result of today’s decision.Walmart has a long history of providing advancement opportunities for our female associates and over the years we have made tremendous strides in developing women throughout the organization. In fact, we have created specific training and mentoring programs to help prepare women for opportunities at all levels in our company. As a result of our efforts, Walmart is often recognized as a great place for women to work.
The Supreme Court ruling will allow Walmart executives perhaps to bat away one of the last big peeves that progressives have used against the company. Stores will still face unionization efforts, but it’s also hard for its legion of critics anymore to argue that the nation’s largest retailer is a scofflaw on environmental and health-insurance issues. Walmart has deployed some of the most progressive corporate policies in its industry in both areas.
Clearing away the discrimination class-action issue also will allow its executives to tend with even greater clarity to their most urgent priority: righting their problem with same-store sales in the United States. Growth abroad has spurted, but Walmart still can’t figure out how to re-energize sales in its domestic operations, even after recently returning to its emphasis on everyday low prices and broad selection, after a foray during the Great Recession into de-cluttering the stores and limiting promotions.
There may be a celebration in Bentonville, Ark., at Walmart HQ today. But tomorrow it’s back to work.