Walmart Wins Federal Class-Action Gender Bias Ruling

A federal judge has again rejected an attempt to file a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit against Walmart, ruling that attorneys had failed to show statistical and anecdotal evidence of gender bias, according to an Associated Press story.

But the lack of evidence alleged in the filing was not the only reason the attempt was rejected by San Francisco-based U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that a larger class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit against Walmart couldn't proceed, finding that there were too many class plaintiffs and that there was no concrete indications of the bias.

In a response to that Supreme Court decision, lawyers started filing smaller versions of the case regionally, hoping that that would address the "too many plaintiffs" concern. Breyer, however, found that the essence of the case was the same as what the Supreme Court had rejected. And given that federal courts must abide by what the Supreme Court rules, it left him little choice but to reject the filing.

"Though plaintiffs insist that they have presented an entirely different case from the one the Supreme Court rejected, it is essentially a scaled-down version of the same case with new labels on old arguments," Breyer wrote.

The ruling doesn't prevent the individual cases against Walmart from proceeding, but lawyers much prefer class-action cases where they can try and show corporate-wide discrimination.

The nature of the court system makes it difficult to prove gender bias, as the circumstances of every employee are different. Unless a memo is found that states that all women are to paid less than all men, it's easy to try and explain away compensation differences. Walmart is not likely to create such a memo, nor is there any reason for them to have such a policy.

That said, store managers here and there—like any bad apples—might privately discriminate, but proving that it is part of some kind of corporate policy is impossible to prove, because there's no reason to do it. (Have a plan to underpay all employees? At least there's a reason to do that. A dumb reason, granted, but a reason nonetheless.)

The question then gets a lot more complex. How many random bad apple managers need to exist before it's acceptable to punish the corporate parent? In that sense, forcing the cases to happen on an individual basis is a plus for those employees. The problem is that class-action lawsuits are not generally done for the benefit of the plaintiff employee as much as for the benefit of the law firms.

It's hard to allege—let alone prove—sufficient damages from one overly-underpaid associate to cover the costs of an investigation of a company with the legal resources of Walmart. So although this might make it easier for some truly-discriminated-against individual associates to successfully sue Walmart, it will make it a lot harder for them to find lawyers who will take their case. In short, this is a win for Walmart on multiple levels. It's now a question of whether other federal judges will rule similarly.

For more:
- See Associated Press story

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