Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart – Part I

Can 1.5 million women stand together in a class-action suit to sue Wal-Mart for employment discrimination?

That’s the narrow legal issue that the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to decide by reviewing the Ninth Circuit appellate case Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart. This specific issue gets to the heart of what is known as a class-action lawsuit, which allows bundling the complaints of similarly situated plaintiffs into one lawsuit. In this case, a woman named Betty Dukes has raised allegations the lower trial and appellate Courts found were shared by more than 1 million female Wal-Mart employees. Ms. Dukes and the the other plaintiffs in the suit allege that women who work for Wal-Mart:

(1) are paid less than men in comparable positions, despite having higher performance ratings and greater seniority; and

(2) receive fewer — and wait longer for — promotions to in-store management positions than men.

Whether these plaintiffs were appropriately grouped together and certified as a “class” by the initial trial court in California is the issue that will be examined in the Supreme Court’s pending review. This will be a very important decision that will impact the viability of other class-action lawsuits, and by extension, the liability that American corporations may face in a wide range of future class action lawsuits.

In several upcoming posts, I will examine another issue that is under-analyzed, yet equally important and fascinating: I’ll discuss and analyze the role of expert witnesses who rely on social science research to support allegations made by plaintiffs. These experts are an important source of information that juries rely on to help determine factual matters that determine whether plaintiff wins or loses. For example, a central claim made by the plaintiffs in the Dukes vs. Wal-Mart case is that:

“Wal-Mart’s strong, centralized structure fosters or facilitates gender stereotyping and discrimination, that the policies and practices underlying this discriminatory treatment are consistent throughout Wal-Mart stores, and that this discrimination is common to all women who work or have worked in Wal-Mart stores.” (Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 509 F.3d 1168, at 6147 (2010).

In the next post, I’ll discuss the methods and social science literature that Dr. William T. Bielby, the plaintiff’s expert in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart case, relied on to determine that in his opinion: “Personnel policy and practice at Wal-Mart as implemented in the field has features known to be vulnerable to gender bias”.

Dr. Bielby is a sociology professor, and his expert determination based on a review of social science literature was admissible in court, despite some interesting challenges made by the defendant to discredit the evidence and testimony, which I also will examine in an upcoming post.

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