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Supreme Court’s Game Changer: No class certification in Wal-Mart sex discrimination case

In an eagerly anticipated opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes today. The Court held that insufficient proof existed to allow certification of a class of more than one million women in a sex discrimination suit against Wal-Mart. The Court ruled only on the procedural issue of whether a class should be certified and not on the merits of the plaintiffs’ discrimination claims.

In Wal-Mart, the plaintiffs sought certification of a class of over one million women claiming that Wal-Mart had a companywide policy of discriminating against women in pay and promotion. The plaintiffs initially sought to include women who were not even employed by Wal-Mart when the lawsuit was filed in 2001. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowed certification of a narrowed class of women who worked at the company at the time of the 2001 suit. Wal-Mart appealed that decision arguing that the plaintiffs could not show that the claims of the over one million women were sufficiently similar to support certification as a class.

A majority of the Court agreed with Wal-Mart’s argument holding that the plaintiffs provided “no convincing proof of a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy.” The Court found that without “some glue holding” the claims together, it would be impossible to say that the claims arose out of a common employment policy.

For the first time in over a decade, the Court’s opinion provides guidance on the types of claims that can be certified as a class. To pursue a class claim, the individuals must have a truly common legal basis for their claims. For employers being hammered with class action claims, the Supreme Court’s Wal-Mart decision is expected to have broad implications for future class discrimination claims. We will continue to analyze the implications of this case and provide further updates.