Class-action lawsuits are a powerful tool for employees and consumers to fight for their rights against major corporations. However, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which raised the threshold for the certification of class-action lawsuits, perhaps the correct way to have begun this post would be “Class-action lawsuits were a powerful tool.”
The tide against class-action lawsuits was never more resounding than in Wal-Mart. One year ago, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s grant of class certification, after female employees of Wal-Mart tried to bring a class-action lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the mega-corporation for consistently promoting and paying higher salaries to male employees. The employees presented facts showing that 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s hourly jobs are filled by women, while only a third of management positions are. Additionally, women are paid less than their male counterparts from day one and over the course of their employment (read our study here). The Court’s decision not only affected the rights of the one million current and former female Wal-Mart employees whose interests were at stake in the suit, but radically re-wrote the federal rules on class certification with implications for millions of other plaintiffs or would-be plaintiffs.
In Wal-Mart, the Court changed the commonality standard from an “easily satisfied” bar to one requiring that common issues “predominate.” The Court held that a discretionary management system that has produced disparity does not satisfy the new stricter standard. The new commonality standard means that to move forward as a class-action lawsuit, the claims must
depend upon a common contention of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution — which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke. . . . What matters to class certification [is] the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation.
Now not only must plaintiffs be affected by a decision made by high-level corporate executives (rather than by lower management), but the higher-ups’ decision-making must also be conscious and intentional. Needless to say, the Wal-Mart case has far-ranging implications for fighting sex discrimination in the workplace and for class-action litigation across the board.
There are many reasons why class-action litigation is an important vehicle for the vindication of civil rights. In cases involving systemic discrimination, each plaintiff’s case becomes stronger when seen in the aggregate. Furthermore, a wide-scale lawsuit can improve the lot for more employees (or consumers, as the case may be) and so is a more efficient means of delivering more justice than individual suits. Finally, a class action can affect a corporation’s bottom line in a way that individual litigation is unlikely to, and thus class actions are more likely to inspire improvements in corporate behavior.
In the wake of Wal-Mart, several circuits have prevented class-action lawsuits from moving forward. The Fifth and Second Circuits have followed language in Wal-Mart rejecting class-action lawsuits in which plaintiffs claim separate, individual damages, while the Ninth and Eighth Circuits have focused on Wal-Mart’s heightened commonality requirement.
In a troubling decision, Bennett v. Nucor Corporation, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a suit, finding that the plaintiff employees failed to meet the commonality requirement under Wal-Mart. In that case, African-American employees at an Arkansas steel mill attempted to bring a class-action lawsuit for racial discrimination against their employer under § 1981 and Title VII. The court found that the employees did not speak for the entire plant because they only worked in one of five departments of the plant, where Confederate flag-style “do-rags” were sold in the company store, actual Confederate flags and nooses were publicly displayed, and racial comments were communicated over the radio, in e-mails, and scrawled on the equipment and in bathrooms.
Some courts, including the Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Circuits, have distinguished Wal-Mart in cases against the De Beers and Hearst corporations, among others. In one of the most publicized post-Wal-Mart decisions, McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, decided in February of this year, Judge Posner of the Seventh Circuit wrote for a three-judge panel that African-American financial advisors for Merrill Lynch could bring a class-action lawsuit under Title VII and § 1981 because the issue of disparate impact on African-American employees was appropriate for class-wide treatment.
Posner came to this conclusion by distinguishing Wal-Mart. In Wal-Mart, corporate policies formally forbade sex discrimination and assigned hiring decisions to local managers. However, in Merrill Lynch, the Seventh Circuit took issue with two corporate policies: the “teaming” policy and the “account distribution” policy. The teaming policy permits brokers to form their own teams, which in turn are supposed to improve client services. The account distribution policy permits brokers to compete for the clients of departing brokers, based largely on past successes. This is an important distinction because Merrill Lynch’s policies were created in the higher echelons of management — not by local managers — and facilitated discrimination in that the African-American employees claimed that they were less likely to be selected for teams or distributed-accounts.
Meanwhile, the Wal-Mart plaintiffs have re-filed as regional classes in California and Texas courts and intend to continue pursuing their important claims.
Although some lower courts are allowing class actions to proceed under the Wal-Mart standard, the Corporate Court may not be done with rewriting the class certification rules. Just last week, the Court agreed to hear Comcast v. Behrend during its next term, in order to address the question of what issues that bear on the merits of the case must be resolved at the class certification stage. If the Court reverses the Third Circuit’s plaintiff-friendly holding in this case, it will be erecting yet another barrier to justice for everyday Americans.