In a decision that many employers have been waiting for since the Ninth Circuit’s decision certifying a class of approximately 1.5 million women, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected class action certification in “one of the most expansive class actions ever.” See Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, No. 10-277 (June 20, 2011). The case involved allegations of gender discrimination in pay and promotion decisions in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made on behalf of all current and former female employees of Wal-Mart, estimated to number as many as 1.5 million. Reversing a Ninth Circuit decision that upheld the class certification, the Supreme Court found the lower courts had misapplied the federal rules governing the circumstances in which class certification should be accorded and the availability of damages as an incident of class injunctive or declaratory relief.
The plaintiffs alleged that Wal-Mart permits local managers to use broad discretion in making decisions regarding pay and promotion, that managers employ their own subjective criteria in making those decisions disproportionately in favor of men, and that Wal-Mart was aware of these results. In essence, the plaintiffs alleged that Wal-Mart’s “corporate culture” permitted bias against women to affect managers’ discretionary decisions regarding pay and promotion.
In a decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts’ conclusion that the plaintiffs had satisfied the class action requirements in Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Justice Scalia observed at the outset that class actions are an “exception” to the general rule that litigation may be maintained only by named parties. While the courts’ role in keeping such actions within proper bounds may lead to class certification analyses touching the merits of the substantive claims, such overlap “cannot be helped,” he said, and must not cause courts to refrain from a “rigorous analysis” of whether plaintiffs have met the class certification standards.
The case is significant in light of the recent increase in class actions based on protected categories in California. See a more detailed analysis by Jackson Lewis at "Supreme Court Reverses Certification of Nationwide Class of 1.5 Million Female Workers"