Last June, the Supreme Court tossed out a class action lawsuit brought by over a million Walmart employees alleging that the company systematically discriminates against women. The Court did not allow the women to try to prove that such discrimination exists, instead holding that the women did not have enough in common with each other to come together in one lawsuit. Yesterday, the women responded to this setback with the first of several cases breaking them down into smaller groups:
The lawyers promised an “armada” of other lawsuits in the next six months making discrimination claims in other regions of the country, as opposed to nationwide. “The case we are starting today is the first of many,” said Brad Seligman, one of the lead plaintiff lawyers. He added that the new lawsuits are “what we like to call Wal-Mart 2.0.” […]
The lawsuit filed Thursday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California contends that Wal-Mart’s discriminatory practices on pay and job promotion affected more than 90,000 women currently or formerly employed at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in four regions in California and neighboring states.
This tactic could ultimately prove successful, and it is possible that many hundreds of thousands of women could receive long overdue justice by joining together in somewhat smaller groups. Even if they win, however, the sad truth is that this victory could probably never be repeated thanks to an enormous gift the Supreme Court gave powerful corporations last April.
When the Supreme Court’s Wal-Mart case was handed down, ThinkProgress called it only “the second worst class action case this Supreme Court term.” The worst decision — indeed, one of the very worst Supreme Court decisions in the last decade — was AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. Concepcion built off a long line of misguided decisions allowing corporations to force their consumers and workers to sign away their right to sue the company in a real court and shunt any disputes into a secretive, privatized arbitration system that overwhelming favors corporate parties. Under Concepcion, corporations can not only take away your right to hold them accountable in a real court, they can also take away your right to join together with other victims of the corporation’s lawbreaking to form a class action lawsuit.
Thanks to this deeply erroneous decision, Walmart can now force each and every one of their workers to sign away their rights or they are fired. And without the ability to bring class actions in the future, many of these workers will be completely powerless against their megacorporate employer.
The class action one of the very few tools enabling vulnerable Americans to stand up to a wealthy and influential corporation. If a major corporation cheats a thousand of its workers out of a thousand dollars each, for example, very few of them will decide it is worth the hassle and expense of a major lawsuit and virtually no lawyer will be willing to take such a low dollar case on a contingency fee basis — meaning that the plaintiffs will have to pay more for legal counsel than they are likely to win in the end. If these thousand workers are able to join together into a class action, however, their million dollar claim suddenly becomes very attractive to top litigators — and the hassle of litigation will be virtually non-existent for most of the plaintiffs. Thanks to Concepcion, however, that is probably no longer an option.
Concepcion was an earthquake, and it shook one of the foundations of our civil justice system to the ground. Walmart may still be held accountable for its past actions, but it is doubtful that any of its workers will ever be able to join a class action against them again.
This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on October 28, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a blogger on judicial and constitutional issues for ThinkProgress.org. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the Guardian, the American Prospect and the Duke Law Journal; and he has been a guest on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Fox Business and many radio shows.