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Employment Law Blog

Category: Sex Discrimination

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Supreme Court on the Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination Class Action – Got Glue?

The Supreme Court recently issued its long-awaited decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes (opinion), the largest class action discrimination suit in history. The bottom line is that the Court unanimously rejected the Ninth Circuit’s certification of a class comprised of approximately 1.5 million women who worked for Wal-Mart. The biggest impact of the Court’s decision, however, was the holding by five members that the claims lacked commonality. In the words of Justice Scalia, the class cannot sue over millions of employment decisions, “[w]ithout some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together.”

Now, employers facing or fearing class action discrimination suits will have to ask the preliminary question about the class: Got Glue? The Supreme Court’s opinion helps to define what is, and to a larger extent what is not, glue.

Corporate Policy

Can corporate policy be glue? You better believe it. In this case, however, there was no discriminatory policy. In fact, there was a company-wide policy of anti-discrimination. The plaintiffs tried to rely on Wal-Mart’s policy of granting broad discretion to individual managers in making pay decisions. But, in a company the size of Wal-Mart, “it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common direction.” In short, no glue.

Statistics

The Court’s opinion notably downplays the value of statistical evidence in this situation. The plaintiffs provided statistical evidence which they maintain showed “statistically significant disparities between men and women at Wal-Mart [that] can be explained only by gender discrimination.” The Court reasoned that national and regional disparities failed to show discrimination at the district level, let alone the individual store level. “A regional pay disparity, for example, may be attributable to only a small set of Wal-Mart stores, and cannot by itself establish the uniform, store-by-store disparity.”

Anecdotes

Affidavits from individuals showing anecdotal evidence of discrimination can provide some glue, but it depends on the circumstances. For example, the Court noted a previous case in which there were anecdotes for every eight members of the class, mostly coming from the operational centers where the class members were based. Here, the plaintiffs had only 120 affidavits for 1.5 million people. Fourteen entire states had no corresponding anecdotes, and half of all states had only one or two for the entire state. That’s not glue.

Experts

The Court found the proffered expert testimony in this case unpersuasive to say the least. A sociologist testified regarding “social framework” analysis, which allegedly showed that Wal-Mart’s corporate culture was susceptible to gender bias. But, the expert couldn’t “calculate whether 0.5 percent or 95 percent of the employment decisions at Wal-Mart might be determined by stereotyped thinking.” No glue. In fact, it is questionable whether his testimony was even properly admitted.

Conclusion

The Court used the Wal-Mart case as an example of a class with no glue. As discussed previously, it also provides some hints about where future classes may find some.

Phil Miles is an attorney in McQuaide Blasko’s Labor and Employment Law Practice Group and publisher of Lawffice Space, an employment law blog.

Posted by Philip Miles on 06/26 at 10:08 PM
Class ActionsEmployment LawSex Discrimination
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Supreme Court Holds that 3rd Party Retaliation Exists… but When?

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, the United States Supreme Court established that Title VII third-party retaliation claims exist. Specifically, an employer will be liable for retaliating against an employee who engaged in protected activity by terminating her fiancé. Now, employers are left wondering, “If firing the fiancé creates liability, what other relationships are covered?”

Justice Scalia, writing for a unanimous court (absent Justice Kagan who did not participate), provided some guidance but left many lines still to be drawn. Let’s start with the rule to be applied. The employer may be liable for retaliation where its actions “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination” (aka the Burlington standard). That’s nice and all, but how is it applied?

The opinion lacks any real analysis regarding why firing the fiancé is sufficient to establish retaliation. Justice Scalia just states that the Court has “little difficulty” because it’s “obvious” that firing the fiancé meets the Burlington standard. While I agree, that’s not going to be much help in analyzing other situations. For example, whether suspending an employee’s girlfriend for seven days meets the standard is not-so-obvious.

Justice Scalia suggests that there are two factors that determine whether third-party retaliation is unlawful under Title VII: 1. The nature of the relationship; and 2. The severity of the employer’s action. Thus, he states: “We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so.” What about terminating a mere acquaintance? Or a “milder reprisal” against a “close family member”? And what about not-so-close family members?

We know the ends of the spectrum, but employers are largely left in the dark with everything in between. The district and circuit courts will start to fill those gaps as the third-party retaliation claims hit the courts. Chances are, there will be a lot more third-party claims now that the Supreme Court has blessed them. For now, employers will just have to be careful when taking actions against employees known to have some relationship to an employee who engaged in protected activity.

Phil Miles is an attorney in McQuaide Blasko’s Labor and Employment Law Practice Group and publisher of Lawffice Space, an employment law blog.

Posted by Philip Miles on 02/15 at 02:01 PM
Employment LawSex Discrimination