9th Circuit Clears Road for Wal-Mart Gender Discrimination Class Action

February 6, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A potentially huge gender discrimination lawsuit against retailer Wal-Mart Stores can move forward as a class action, a federal appellate court ruled Tuesday, in a move that could eventually see 1.6 million plaintiffs.

While making it clear that it was not passing judgment on the underlying claims of rampant discrimination against female employees in the suit against the giant retailer, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nonetheless upheld a lower court procedural decision granting the case class action status (See  Court Approves Wal-Mart Discrimination Suit Class ).

The split two-to-one ruling agreed with   U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, that Wal-Mart’s rights could still be protected by trying the merits of the cases at the same time – even with a potentially massive number of plaintiffs.

Jenkins was not legally off base when he ruled that “the class size does not deprive Wal-Mart of its opportunity to present a defense,” asserted Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson, for the court.

Pregerson continued: “In essence, Wal-Mart contends that an ordinary defendant is entitled to hearings so that he or she may have the opportunity to review and rebut individualized claims but that, because of Wal-Mart’s size and the size of the class, it is deprived of opportunities afforded other defendants. Wal-Mart contends that individualized hearings, and not the analysis of aggregated data, are necessary to preserve its due process rights. We disagree.”

Plaintiffs lawyers say approximately 1.6 million women have worked for the company in theU.S. since 1998 and could potentially join the lawsuit, which charged that the company discriminated against women in both pay and promotions.

Pregerson contended that it was preferable as a technical matter to group the cases because they will be trying similar issues.

“We hold that (Jenkins) acted within (his) broad discretion in concluding that it would be better to handle this case as a class action instead of clogging the federal courts with innumerable individual suits litigating the same issues repeatedly,” wrote Pregerson. “Wal-Mart failed to point to any specific management problems that would render a class action impracticable in this case, and the district court has the discretion to modify or decertify the class should it become unmanageable. Although the size of this class action is large, mere size does not render a case unmanageable.”

Court documents filed in the case before Jenkins show the giant retailer not only didn’t implement change recommendations about dealing with female employees, it disbanded the panel that advanced the suggestions (See Court Documents Say Wal-Mart Ignored Sex Discrimination Warnings ).

For its part, Wal-Mart insisted that it hasn’t engaged in gender discrimination and appealed Jenkins’ ruling to the 9 th Circuit.

The 9 th Circuit ruling is  here .