WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether to certify the largest class-action employment discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history, a long-standing dispute involving Wal-Mart Stores and alleged gender bias in pay and promotions.
The case, which dates back to 2001, when six women filed the suit on behalf of current and former Wal-Mart employees, alleging the discounter paid female workers significantly less than their male counterparts and offered them fewer opportunities for advancement. It involves claims that could amount to billions of dollars.
The justices announced Monday they had accepted the Arkansas-based chain's appeal and will hold oral arguments next spring. A divided 6-5 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year had allowed the combined, multiparty litigation to move ahead to one trial, where a verdict against the company could result in billions of dollars in damages.
The court will decide only whether to handle the original lawsuit as a class action, instead of lower courts potentially being flooded with thousands of individual discrimination claims against the company. A potential ruling by the justices against Wal-Mart permitting class action could put severe pressure on the company to settle the claims out of court.
The case, which would be among the biggest of the current term, could establish binding standards over high-stakes liability involving employers large and small.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has granted review in this important case,” Wal-Mart said in a statement. “The current confusion in class action law is harmful for everyone -- employers, employees, businesses of all types and sizes, and the civil justice system. These are exceedingly important issues that reach far beyond this particular case. We look forward to the Court's consideration of the appeal."
The lawsuit alleges the company's "strong, centralized structure fosters or facilitates gender stereotyping and discrimination."
The plaintiffs in the case, who held different jobs in different stores, alleged that Wal-Mart's corporate culture and employment polices fostered gender stereotyping and led to adverse treatment of women in all of the retailer's 41 domestic regions.