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Supreme Court Blocks Class-Action Gender Bias Suit Against Wal-Mart

BY Maureen Hoch  June 20, 2011 at 2:25 PM EST

The National Women's Law Center holds a rally in front of the Supreme Court. Photo By Bill Clark

The justices ruled unanimously that a lawsuit, which charged that the retail giant Wal-Mart systematically paid men more than women and promoted them faster, cannot go forward as a class action suit.

Instead, a group of women who brought the initial lawsuit may pursue their claims on their own — putting much less pressure on Wal-Mart to settle.

The justices divided 5-4 on another aspect of the ruling that could make it much harder to mount similar class-action discrimination lawsuits against large employers, according to the AP’s summation of the decision.

In a statement, Wal-Mart said:”The Court today unanimously rejected class certification and, as the majority made clear, the plaintiffs’ claims were worlds away from showing a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority that “Even if every single one of these accounts is true, that would not demonstrate that the entire company operates under a general policy of discrimination…which is what respondents must show to certify a companywide class.”

As the Washington Post describes, the battle over what rises to the level of class-action lawsuits will still be debated.

“This case is not over,” said Brad Seligman, one of the lawyers representing the women, according to the Post. He said individual suits alleging discrimination may proceed, or smaller class-action suits. “Wal-Mart is not off the hook,” he said.

The massive suit started out on a smaller scale almost a decade ago, with a discrimination claim brought by Wal-Mart greeter Betty Dukes.

Dukes and five female co-workers charged Wal-Mart with discrimination claims on pay and promotions, and are seeking back pay and punitive damages. About 1.5 million women work or have worked in Wal-Mart retail stores or its affiliate, Sam’s Club, since December 1998, and they all would have been eligible to participate in the suit, had it proceeded as a class action.

The National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle explained the case’s implications when arguments were heard in March:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

In another highly-anticipated decision,  the court ruled 8-0 Monday to block a federal lawsuit by states and conservation groups trying to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The justices rules that the authority to seek reductions in emissions rests with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The ruling stemmed from a 2004 lawsuit claiming the five electric utilities have created a public nuisance by contributing to climate change.

Coyle discussed the details of that case in April:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.