Class Action Treatment of Sex Discrimination in Promotion Claim Against Wal-Mart not Proper because Commonality Requirement not Met and because Rule 23(b)(2) Class Inappropriate given Monetary Relief Sought Supreme Court Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative labor law class action against Wal-Mart Stores, alleging systematic discrimination against women in pay and promotion in violation of Title VII. Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 564 U.S. ___ (June 20, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 1]. The class action sought injunctive and declaratory relief, but also sought monetary damages in the form of backpay. Id. The theory underlying the class action against Wal-Mart was not that the company had “any express corporate policy against the advancement of women” but, rather, that Wal-Mart’s local managers “[exercised] discretion over pay and promotion…disproportionately in favor of men, leading to an unlawful disparate impact on female employees.” Id., at 4. As the Supreme Court explained, “The basic theory of the case is that a strong and uniform ‘corporate culture’ permits bias against women to infect, perhaps subconsciously, the discretionary decisionmaking of each one of Wal-Mart’s thousands of managers – thereby making every woman at the company the victim of one common discriminatory practice.” Id. The district court certified a nationwide class action against Wal-Mart consisting of approximately 1.5 million current and former female employees, id., at 1. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the class action certification order, id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.
By way of background, the Supreme Court noted that Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States, operating 4 types of retail stores (Discount Stores, Neighborhood Markets, Sam’s Clubs and Superstores) that are “divided into seven nationwide divisions, which in turn comprise 41 regions of 80 to 85 stores apiece,” each with 40-53 separate departments and anywhere 80-500 employees. Wal-Mart, at 1-2. Decisions regarding pay and promotion “are generally committed to local managers’ broad discretion, which is exercised ‘ in a largely subjective manner.’” Id., at 2, quoting 222 F.R.D. 137, 145 (N.D. Cal. 2004). With respect to the individual named plaintiffs, Betty Dukes began working for Wal-Mart in 1994 and was eventually promoted to customer service manager before being demoted all the way down to greeter due to “a series of disciplinary violations.” Id., at 3. Dukes admitted that she violated company policy, but claimed that her demotions were “retaliation for invoking internal complaint procedures and that male employees have not been disciplined for similar infractions.” Id. Christine Kwapnoski worked at Sam’s Club “for most of her adult life” and held various positions, “including a supervisory position,” but she claimed that her male manager yelled at her and other female employees (but not at men) and told her to dress better, wear makeup and “doll up.” Id. Edith Arana worked at Wal-Mart from 1995-2001, and in 2000 repeatedly asked her store manager about management training “but was brushed off.” Id. She followed internal complaint procedures and was advised to bypass her store manager and apply directly to the district manager for management training, but she elected not to do so. Id. Arana was fired in 2001 for failing to comply with the company’s timekeeping policy. Id.