In a stunning 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against a group of women who had experienced gender discrimination by those in charge at many different Wal-Mart locations nationwide. In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court reasoned that the different women could not form a class action lawsuit because their experiences were too dissimilar to arrive at relief that could address all of them.
“Respondents wish to sue for millions of employment decisions at once. Without some glue holding together the alleged reasons for those decisions, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims will produce a common answer to the crucial discrimination question,” wrote Justice Scalia.
The decision adds another barrier for workers looking for relief from their employers. We’ve seen the elimination of unions in Wisconsin and the lessening caseload of the National Labor Relations Board over the years. As a result, employees were using class-action lawsuits as a way to gain leverage in negotiations with their employers. With the Court’s decision, most of that power has been eroded and greater restrictions placed on workers when challenging the larger businesses in the country. The decision has basically deemed companies like Wal-Mart as “too big to sue” and not liable for the actions of the individual managers of their stores.
For a group of employees to successfully challenge a large corporation in a class-action lawsuit, they must now show that the discrimination is company-wide and that the workers’ experiences have commonality and cohesiveness among the claims. Scalia and the rest of the majority felt it would be unfair to allow a large class-action suit when the damages for each plaintiff could vary so greatly. Since the damages would be monetary awards, plaintiffs with differing levels of discrimination would receive the same amount instead of having an individual assessment of how each plaintiff suffered.
The bar has been set too high. Judicial economy is ruined, as more and more individual claims will be filed to address issues that aren’t identical, but similar enough to be heard together. Many workers, who often earn low wages, will be discouraged, as they don’t have the resources to battle a large company such as Wal-Mart.
Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center noted that the recent decision “strikes a blow to those who face discrimination in the workplace to be able to join together and hold companies, especially large companies, accountable for the full range of discrimination they may be responsible for.”