The U.S. Supreme Court this morning agreed to hear Wal-Mart’s appeal of a decision that granted certification to what would be the largest employment discrimination class action case ever heard in the United States. The SCOTUSBlog has the definitive wrapup here.
The underlying case has raised allegations of sex discrimination by current and female workers who claim a lack of promotion opportunities. For background, you can view this post.
But before you get too excited about the Supreme Court’s announcement this morning, you should understand that the Supreme Court’s decision today is to hear whether the procedural standards for class actions have been followed, not on the underlying merits of the claim.
Accordingly, the SCOTUSBlog reports that these will be the issues to be decided by the court:
The first question will be whether, under Federal court Rule 23, a lawsuit may seek a money verdict — in this case, a claim for back pay — when the class was created under a provision that limits remedies to corrective court orders, not money. Besides agreeing to hear that, the Court told the parties to file briefs and prepare to argue on a second question — whether the class was a proper one, under Rule 23, when it was cleared to go forward under Rule 23(b)(2). It is unclear whether the Court, if it answered that second question in the negative, would be signaling that the class case might still proceed under a different part of Rule 23 — part (b)(3), which does allow money claims.
Wal-Mart’s petition had raised a second question that embraced the broader argument that no class should have been approved at all, since the claims made by the women employees were so disparate and so diffuse that they really had nothing in common, and that, as a result, Wal-Mart would not have been able to mount a defense to such claims. The Court rewrote Wal-Mart’s second question, without making it clear exactly what arguments the lawyers should now be making in addition to whether a money claim could be made in this case.
Thus, for attorneys who deal with class actions, the case could have some fairly significant ramifications and may give some guidance as to whether a class action might actually be too big. (The Workplace Prof blog doubts that the Court will allow a class size this big to stand.)
For most businesses (particularly small to medium size who will likely never deal with a class action), however, this will have a fairly minimal impact on the day-to-day workings, regardless of the outcome.
One point should not be overlooked: Despite the narrow procedural issue to be decided by the court, the publicity that this case is likely to generate will far exceed its actual importance to most employers.
Thus, human resource professionals and operations managers should keep up-to-date on the developments so top management can respond to any questions that the publicity from this case may bring.
Oral argument is expected in March or April and a decision would be expected late in the court’s term, probably at the end of June 2011.