WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart goes too far, handing the nation's largest private employer a major legal victory whose fruits will be enjoyed by the business community at large.
Justices unanimously ruled that the sex discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of 1.5 million past and present female Wal-Mart employees failed to meet certain class-action criteria. Instead, individual workers must pursue their complaints on their own.
Beyond Wal-Mart, the justices, by 5-4, essentially defined rules that would constrain future class-action lawsuits.
"The mere claim by employees of the same company that they have suffered a (discrimination) injury... gives no cause to believe that all their claims can be productively litigated at once, "Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.
The court's ruling cheers other major corporations including Hewlett-Packard, Del Monte Foods and Bank of America, which had joined legal briefs on Wal-Mart's behalf. The ruling dismays but doesn't necessarily surprise unions and civil rights groups, which had allied with the Wal-Mart employees.
Scalia and other Republican-appointed justices on the court have issued other rulings that have similarly impeded employment discrimination complaints.
"This is not an isolated case," said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that "an activist majority of the Supreme Court is making it more and more difficult for any American to have their day in court."
All nine justices agreed Monday that the sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, initially filed in June 2001, failed to meet class-action criteria for cases in which plaintiffs seek back pay.
The divided court, though, established a higher bar for determining when an individual's lawsuit can be elevated to a class action. The court's majority concluded in part that "dissimilarities" among individuals can undercut a potential class action even if the individuals share common complaints.
"Individual differences should not bar a... class," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters, Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
It's this potential impediment to broadening an individual's lawsuit that helps make the case called Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes so important.
"It makes it even tougher for employees to band together as a class action," said Suzette Malveaux, an associate professor at the Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law.