Dukes v. Wal-Mart: Supreme Court Justices Debate Merits of Class Certification Discriminatory Pay & Promotion Claims


The receipt of a federal lawsuit is generally viewed as a bad day for any employer; seeing that a plaintiff is seeking class action status on behalf of hundreds or thousands of current and past employees is enough to turn a bad day into an unenviable nightmare. Such was the situation when Wal-Mart, one of the country’s largest employers, was notified that a female manager, Betty Dukes, was suing the company on behalf of all female managers alleging a pattern and practice of discriminatory pay and promotion practices. Ms. Dukes alleged that despite the company’s non-discrimination policy, the Arkansas-based employer paid their female managers at lower rates than their male counterparts on a nationwide scale and women were promoted less often than men.

Recently, the issue of certifying the class of female employees became the focal point of what many view to have been one of the liveliest oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court in years. During each side’s hour-long presentation, it seems that the Justices spoke almost as much as the attorneys, often-times overlapping each other’s questions and even interrupting a colleague’s question in an attempt to make their own point. However, the result of the heated debate is far from clear. Will Wal-Mart be faced with a multi-million dollar class action for discriminatory practices or will it be just another single-litigant against one of the world’s largest retail empires?

Class certification is governed by Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and generally requires (1) that there to be too many potential members to identify and join each of them; (2) a common question of law or fact; (3) a commonality of claims or defenses; and (4) that the representative parties will adequately protect the interests of the entire class. It’s generally agreed that the potential plaintiffs here would meet most of these requirements. However, the focus of the discussion before the Court was whether the proposed class of female managers truly shared common legal and factual issues. One key question from Justice Kennedy has led many to speculate that Ms. Dukes and her potential class members have a fatal flaw in their argument.

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