walmart.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court said today it will decide whether a discrimination lawsuit pending in federal court in San Francisco against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. can proceed as a massive class action on behalf of hundreds of thousands of women.

The lawsuit was filed in 2001 by six women on behalf of up to 1.5 million present and former female employees at Wal-Mart’s 3,400 stores nationwide since 1998.

The Arkansas-based discount department store chain is the world’s largest private employer. The plaintiffs claim it discriminates against women in pay and promotion.

Wal-Mart appealed to the high court after a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled by a 6-5 vote in April that the lawsuit could go to trial as a class action, or group case, on behalf of most of the present and former workers.

Wal-Mart contends a class action would be inappropriate and unmanageable because hiring and promotion decisions are made by individual managers.

The company also maintains it doesn’t discriminate.

The high court will decide only whether the case can be a class action. Whether the company has shown bias against women would be determined at the trial, which has not yet been scheduled.

Wal-Mart said in a statement today, “We are pleased that the Supreme Court has granted review in this important case.

“The current confusion in class action law is harmful for everyone – employers, employees, businesses of all types and sizes, and the civil justice system. These are exceedingly important issues that reach far beyond this particular case.”

Lawyers for the women who sued the company claim a class action is warranted because local store managers make decisions within a national system that allegedly has “a common culture” of bias against women.

“After 10 years of litigation, we are eager to have the court finally resolve the procedural issues that Wal-Mart has raised in its effort to delay the trial of this case,” lead attorney Brad Seligman of Berkeley said.

“We are confident that the court will agree the women of Wal-Mart are entitled to their day in court.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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