The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on Monday in the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in history, saying class-action status for female employees seeking billions of dollars had been improperly granted.
The justices overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that more than a million female employees nationwide could join in the lawsuit accusing Wal-Mart of paying women less and giving them fewer promotions.
The Supreme Court agreed with Wal-Mart that the class-action certification violated federal rules for such lawsuits.
The high court accepted Wal-Mart’s main argument that the female employees in different jobs at 3,400 different stores nationwide and with different supervisors do not have enough in common to be lumped together in a single class-action lawsuit.
The Supreme Court only decided whether the 10-year-old lawsuit can proceed to trial as a group, not the merits of the sex-discrimination allegations at the heart of the case.
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and the largest private U.S. employer, has denied the allegations and said it has operated under a policy barring discrimination.
The ruling in the biggest business case of the high court’s 2010-11 term could affect other class-action lawsuits against the tobacco industry and Costco Wholesale Corp. It also was the court’s most important job-discrimination dispute in more than a decade.
Justice Antonin Scalia concluded for the court majority that the class was not properly certified.
He said there must be significant proof that Wal-Mart operated under a general policy of discrimination. “That is entirely absent here,” he said, noting that Wal-Mart’s official corporate policies forbid sex discrimination.
Wal-Mart shares rose after news of the decision, rising 46 cents, almost 1 percent, to $53.28 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The court’s four other conservatives joined all of Scalia’s ruling. The court’s four liberals joined part of it, but dissented in part.
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