The Supreme Court shelved a major gender-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart on Monday in a unanimous decision that prompted sharp criticism from House Democrats.
The court ruled the suit brought by three former female Wal-Mart employees seeking damages for 1.5 million current and former employees, which could have resulted in billions of dollars in damages, could not go forward as a class action.
In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that significant proof that Wal-Mart operated under a general policy of discrimination was “entirely absent here.”
He wrote that the only evidence of a general policy of discrimination produced was the testimony of a sociological expert who said Wal-Mart has a “strong corporate culture” that makes it “vulnerable” to “gender bias.”
But Scalia wrote that the expert could not determine how this played a meaningful role in Wal-Mart’s employment decisions. The expert also conceded, Scalia wrote, that he could not calculate whether 0.5 percent or 95 percent of the company’s employment decisions were determined by “stereotyped thinking.”
While the decision that the suit could not go forward as a class action was unanimous, four liberal justices, including all three of the court’s female members, joined a concurring opinion that disagreed with most of the substance of the majority opinion.
In the opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagreed with the majority opinion that there was no “commonality” among the plaintiffs, and also suggested there was evidence of discrimination in Wal-Mart’s hiring.
“The plaintiff’s evidence, including class members’ tales of their own experiences, suggests that gender bias suffused Wal-Mart’s company culture,” Ginsburg wrote. Among other examples, she noted evidence that senior management often referred to female associates as “little Janie Qs” and that women make up only 33 percent of management employees.
The Ginsburg opinion also was signed by the two female justices appointed to the court by President Obama, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
The ruling reverses a decision by a circuit appeals court in San Francisco that said the Wal-Mart employees could sue the company for allegedly paying male employees more and promoting more male employees. The women behind the lawsuit now can only pursue it through individual claims.
While a number of Democrats and major women's groups criticized the decision as a setback for workplace equality, the White House on Monday would only say it was studying the decision. White House press secretary Jay Carney even corrected a reporter who described the White House as disappointed with the ruling.
“As you know, the United States was not involved in the Supreme Court's Wal-Mart decision today, which involved the interpretation of complex rules of civil procedure relating to the certification of plaintiffs' class actions,” Carney said at the White House daily briefing. “Our lawyers are studying the decision now to determine what effects it might have.”
Carney said Obama is committed to eliminating the pay gap between men and women, underlining his support for legislation to equalize pay in the workplace and noting that the first bill the president signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
The reaction from House Democrats, and particularly Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was much more fierce.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision sets back the cause of equality for women and for all Americans in the workplace and in our society,” Pelosi said in a statement. “And it will make it more difficult for workers to come together to fight claims of gender discrimination.
“It is a matter of fundamental fairness in our nation, and we must work — in the courts and in Congress — to correct this injustice throughout our country,” Pelosi said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and other Democrats echoed Pelosi. DeLauro called the ruling “a blow” to women across the country who face discrimination.
“Today’s ruling is yet another bad decision from the Supreme Court for women, and I am very disappointed. It is a blow not only to the employees who filed this lawsuit, and have been fighting for equal pay for over 10 years, but to the millions of women across the country facing workplace discrimination every day,” DeLauro said.
The ruling represents a big win not only for Wal-Mart but for the business community, which saw the court make it tougher to bring a class-action lawsuit against an employer. The decision could have huge implications for future class-action lawsuits.
“Today’s ruling reinforces a fundamental principle of fairness in our court systems: that defendants should have the opportunity to present individualized evidence to show they complied with the law,” said Robin Conrad, an executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby. “Our economy would be better served if businesses could spend more resources creating jobs and fewer resources fighting frivolous litigation.”
This story was posted at 11:12 a.m. and updated at 6:40 p.m.