Supreme Court Rejects Gender Discrimination Class Action Against Wal-Mart

On June 20, 2011, in a closely watched employment law case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a group of approximately one-and-a-half-million female employees of Wal-Mart could not bring a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the company. Specifically, in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the Supreme Court found the women’s claims were not similar enough to each other to proceed as a class action. It reached that conclusion because the alleged discriminatory decisions were made by hundreds of different managers throughout the country, and were not based on a uniform corporate policy.

Three women, Betty Dukes, Christine Kwapnoski, and Edith Arana filed the lawsuit. They alleged that Wal-Mart gave its local store managers broad discretion to make salary and promotional decisions, the managers used that discretion to discriminate against women, and the company knew about the discrimination but did nothing to stop it. The women claim this is discrimination on the basis of their sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination due to gender, race, color, and religion.

Class actions are cases in which one or more individuals bring a case on behalf of a much larger group. To bring a class action, the plaintiffs must prove:

  1. Gender Discrimination retail store.jpgThe class is so large that it is impractical for each plaintiff to sue individually;
  2. There are questions of law and fact common to the whole group;
  3. The claims of the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit (the class representatives) are typical of the claims of the rest of the group; and
  4. The class representatives will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the whole group.

In the Walmart case, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs could not meet the first two requirements because they did not have any evidence that Wal-Mart had a company-wide policy or practice of discriminating against women. The Court found it is not enough to show the company gave broad discretion to its managers, and many or most of those managers abused their discretion by discriminating. Rather, it concluded that since the members of the potential class had been impacted by millions of separate employment decisions made by thousands of different supervisors, it would be impossible to decide all of their claims in a single case. As a result, it ruled that the case cannot proceed as a class action. Instead, it sent it back to the trial court so Ms. Dukes, Ms. Kwapnoski, and Ms. Arana each can try to prove her individual gender discrimination case against Wal-Mart.


If your company has discriminated against you based on your age, race, gender, or disability, or violated another one of your employment law rights in New Jersey or New York, the employment lawyers at Rabner Baumgart Ben-Asher & Nirenberg can help. Contact us at (973) 744-4000 to schedule a consultation.

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