This is a question that the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on last week in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes. A group of women have filed a class action lawsuit alleging that managers at Wal-Mart stores nationwide have failed to promote women into higher-level positions in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is located in California, previously ruled that the class could stay together.
In order to have a lawsuit adjudicated as a class action, the plaintiffs have to show that their claims can be decided by common proof- that is, that the court will not have to hear a whole lot of individual evidence to determine whether the people in the class should win their cases.
The women’s lawyers in this case are arguing that there is a company-wide policy of allowing individual stores to make promotion decisions, and that therefore the company allows discrimination to occur on a local level. That is, the lawyers are arguing that there is a lack of a company-wide policy to prevent discrimination. This is an unusual argument.
The answer to this question, therefore, depends on whether the lawyers can show that this lack of a policy presents enough common proof so that a trial court will not have to hold a bunch of mini-trials to determine whether Wal-Mart discriminated against the women.
This is a very interesting question and we will have our eyes out for the Supreme Court’s opinion!