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Wal-Mart fights sex bias case

Shopping carts are seen outside a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Coolidge, Arizona December 6, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Wal-Mart Stores Inc will argue on Tuesday that the U.S. Supreme Court should halt the largest class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit in history by female employees who seek billions of dollars.

The female employees will counter that their lawsuit should be allowed to go to trial against the world’s largest retailer for allegedly paying women less and giving them fewer promotions than men at 3,400 U.S. stores since late 1998.

At issue in the Supreme Court showdown is whether the small group of women who began the lawsuit 10 years ago can represent a huge nationwide class of current and former employees that could total millions of women.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, expected by late June, could change the legal landscape for workplace and other class-action lawsuits, affecting many other cases, including a similar one against Costco Wholesale Corp.

Wal-Mart’s attorney, Theodore Boutrous, who will argue the case, said female employees in different jobs and in different stores do not have enough in common to be in a single class-action lawsuit.

Joseph Sellers, an attorney for the women, will argue the decision by a judge and a U.S. appeals court to certify the class was based on extensive evidence, and should be upheld.

Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart employee in Pittsburg, California, for whom the case has been named, planned to attend oral arguments, a spokeswoman for the plaintiffs said.

“Without a class action, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about the discrimination. Wal-Mart is just too big. A class action gives us a fair shot. That is all we ask for,” Dukes said.

Women’s groups plan to rally outside the court to show their support for the female employees. They said a Wal-Mart victory could signal a significant retreat for women’s rights in the workplace.

Businesses said a Wal-Mart defeat could make every large corporation vulnerable to sweeping allegations of employment bias and would water down class-action requirements.

Large class-action lawsuits make it easier for big groups of plaintiffs to sue corporations and they have led to huge payouts by tobacco, oil and food companies.

Companies have sought to limit such lawsuits to individual or small groups of plaintiffs. The Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, has often agreed, dating back to 1997.

Legal experts and financial analysts said even if Wal-Mart loses in the Supreme Court and at trial, the retailer with more than $400 billion in sales and $16 billion in net income last year has enough cash to make a big payout.

The Supreme Court case is Wal-Mart Stores Inc v. Betty Dukes, No. 10-277.

Copyright © 2011 Reuters LTD

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