SAN FRANCISCO — Lawyers representing former and current female workers of Wal-Mart Inc.’s California stores on Thursday filed the first of a planned “armada” of class action lawsuits accusing the world’s largest retailer of gender bias.
The lawsuit filed in San Francisco federal court seeks to represent what the lawyers said could be as many as 95,000 women who have worked in the state’s 220 stores sometime between 1998 and when the case goes to trial. It accuses California managers of paying and promoting women at lesser rates than male counterparts.
The lawsuit is a scaled-down version of an initial complaint filed in 2001 that sought to represent 1.6 million women nationwide. But the U.S. Supreme Court in June tossed out that class action lawsuit. The high court ruled the workers’ allegations were too varied to show the company engaged in a specific nationwide pattern and practice of gender bias.
“The Supreme Court did not rule that Wal-Mart was off the hook,” said lawyer Brad Seligman, one of the attorneys who filed the original case. “It was a procedural ruling.”
Seligman said the Supreme Court ruling didn’t address the central issue of whether gender bias was occurring and instead focused on how the 1.6 million workers represented in the original lawsuit had too many different details for inclusion in a single lawsuit. Seligman said that means lawyers will have “to break the case into smaller pieces” by filing region-specific lawsuits.
Seligman’s colleague, Joe Sellers, said the lawyers will file an “armada” of smaller cases across the country over the next six months seeking back pay and punitive damages, which they expect could rival the billions of dollars Wal-Mart was exposed to in the original lawsuit.
All the cases, including the one filed Thursday, need a federal judge’s approval to proceed as a class action lawsuit.
Wal-Mart said Thursday it would oppose the new lawsuits on the same grounds that led to the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in its favor.
“These claims are unsuitable for class (action) treatment because the situations for each individual are so different,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter. “The fact is that the statewide class the plaintiffs would now propose is no more appropriate than the nationwide class that the Supreme Court has already rejected.”
Rossiter said the majority of the company’s 1.4 million U.S. workers are women and that nearly 200,000 female employees have been with the company for more than 10 years.
“Wal-Mart is a great place for women to work,” Rossiter said.
Since the gender-bias lawsuit was given class action status in 2004 on behalf of 1.6 million women, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company has added more policies for advancing women in the workplace. It has set up a women’s council that represents each of the overseas markets and focused training and other efforts on advancing women into management roles.
Wal-Mart said the percentage of entry and midlevel women managers has increased over the past five years from 38.8 percent to 41.2 percent.
Nonetheless, the lawyers and the workers filing the lawsuit Thursday said Wal-Mart still isn’t doing enough to promote equality nor has it been held accountable for alleged bias in the past.
“The evidence is still apparent,” said Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart greeter in Pittsburg and the worker whose name graced the original complaint and remains atop the new lawsuit. “We are determined to see them in court.”