Dukes v. Wal-Mart: What the Supreme Court Decision Means for Employers

In Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the United States Supreme Court reversed certification of the largest sex discrimination class action in our nation’s history. The Plaintiffs sought to certify a nation-wide class of approximately 1.5 million former and current female Wal-Mart employees. The Plaintiffs alleged that nation-wide class certification was appropriate because Wal-Mart engaged in a policy or practice of denying its female employees raises or promotions by giving its local managers discretion to determine when to give raises or promotions.

Justice Scalia, writing for a 5-4 majority, gave renewed life to the requirement that plaintiffs establish common questions of law or fact when seeking to certify a class action. In reversing class certification in Dukes, Justice Scalia explained that a proper class must present both a common question and, more importantly, a common answer to the question of “why was I disfavored?” Significantly, plaintiffs must present “convincing proof” to support their contentions, instead of simply relying on allegations in a complaint. The majority of the Supreme Court agreed that the Plaintiffs had failed to establish a “common answer” because they sought to litigate over millions of employment decisions without “some glue holding the alleged reasons for all of those decisions together.” In so holding, the Supreme Court specifically noted that Wal-Mart had an EEO policy that it enforced, including providing penalties to those who violated the policy.

The Supreme Court’s reversal of class certification in Dukes is a significant victory for employers everywhere. Plaintiffs will have to narrow their class definitions. Employers may delegate authority to local managers without concern that the delegation, in and of itself, will form the basis for a class action complaint. However, to take advantage of the Dukes decision, employers should make sure to enforce their EEO policies and be aware that senior executives’ memos or emails setting forth corporate policy may well be the evidence that decides whether a company-wide or region-wide class action is appropriate.

Additionally, employers should be aware of their workplace demographics. Wal-Mart was accused of having a statistically significant bias against women in both promotions and pay. While Wal-Mart may have had a non-discriminatory explanation for these statistics, the cost of providing such an explanation may prove to be prohibitively high. Employers should consider periodically monitoring their workplace demographics to determine if any evidence of possible discrimination exists. Because it is unlawful (in most cases) to intentionally favor groups of workers, even if the goal is to avoid a perceived statistical bias, dealing with problematic demographics/statistics may be complicated and may require counsel. In almost all cases, however, employers will be better served knowing about adverse statistical evidence they find on their own, rather than learning of the evidence through the filing of a class discrimination complaint.