Wal-Mart v. Dukes: The Court Gets One Right

In today’s decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the Ninth Circuit had jumped the gun in certifying what would have been one of the largest class actions in history, a job-bias action against the giant retailer on behalf of female employees. A five-justice majority led by Justice Scalia found that the plaintiffs had clearly not met the requirements needed to have the case certified for class treatment; four dissenters led by Justice Ginsburg would have sent the case back for more consideration.

While some press commentary simplistically treated this case as a “Which Side Are You On” parable of workplace sexism, both the majority and the dissent spend much time grappling with more lawyerly issues specific to class actions as a procedural format, such as the exact role of “common questions,” whose implications will inevitably be felt in litigation far removed from the employment discrimination context. To sweep hundreds of thousands of workers (or consumers or investors) into a class as plaintiffs even if they personally have suffered no harm whatsoever – to use sexism at Arizona stores to generate back pay awards in Vermont, and statistical disparities to prove bias without allowing defendants to introduce evidence that a given worker’s treatment was fair – bends the class action mechanism beyond its proper capacity. Also to the point, it is unfair.

Because both class action law and employment discrimination law are in the end creatures of federal statute, the elected branches will have the last word. Advocates of expansive employment litigation can be expected to introduce legislation in Congress to overturn key elements of today’s decision, a strategy that has worked well for them in the past on issues like back pay, “disparate-impact” law and the scope of coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While we will soon be hearing a drumbeat to that effect, Congress should resist it, because the majority’s opinion today is to be preferred as a matter of policy, fairness, and liberty.

In particular – to take just one of the policy issues in employment law brought to center stage by today’s case – plaintiffs seek to establish that Wal-Mart’s policy of decentralized manager discretion over pay and promotions is itself an unlawful practice because (they argue) it allows too wide a scope for (unconscious or otherwise) bias on the part of store managers, notwithstanding the company’s adoption of overall policies banning sex bias. The majority led by Scalia marveled that Wal-Mart’s corporate non-policy – that is, its decision not to micromanage its local executives on personnel choices – would wind up being legally interpreted as amounting to an affirmative centralized decision to discriminate. But it’s not – and we should be glad lawyers at every big company aren’t yet insisting that every local HR decision be sent to a distant headquarters for fear of liability.