A federal judge in California has ruled that plaintiffs in a gender discrimination lawsuit against Walmart Inc. must file their cases individually, rather than altogether in class action litigation. The decision wasn’t especially surprising, given a similar ruling made by a federal court in Florida earlier this year. Although this will create challenges for the individual plaintiffs, it could ultimately mean higher damage awards for some of the individuals.
This case, Renati v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., involved of a group of 18 women who had originally been part of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Dukes et al v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which certified a class of 1.5 million workers (more than any other in history), all asserting that the retail giant was in violation of Title VII for disparate pay and benefits to female workers compared to their male counterparts. Women alleged that not only were they paid less than men, they were also overlooked for promotions and raises that were handed over to men less-qualified. One plaintiff was reportedly told that a certain position she sought was “a guy’s job.”
However, the SCOTUS reversed itself on the class certification issue in 2011, finding that while all the women shared the same cause of action predicated on gender discrimination claims, there was no common practice, policy or set of facts applicable to all plaintiffs. There was simply too much variation from case-to-case. Therefore, cases would have to be filed either individually or in smaller groups.
This past summer, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida made the same ruling of nearly 80 current and former employees for the company, previously plaintiffs in Dukes alleging sex discrimination. Plaintiffs claims, the judges say, do not arise out of the same transaction or occurrence. Most of the women worked for different supervisors at different stores
Given how long these claims have dragged on, the defendant requested that the court provide some process to expediently review individual claims that are older than 15 years. Wal-Mart lawyers couched it as plaintiffs attempting to “repackage their failed claims,” but the reality is the courts haven’t actually gotten to the meat of most claims yet. They’re still trying to sort out whether any of these cases can be heard together. Increasingly, it seems as if that is not the case.
Cost-Benefit of Class Action Employment Lawsuits
There are some benefits plaintiffs derive from class action employment lawsuits, but this case highlights an extreme example of one of the risks.
Not every claim is appropriate for class action. Claims don’t need to be identical, but they do have to be practically similar enough that one lawsuit can resolve them all – similar sets of facts and questions of law. (This is referred to as commonality.) A handful of individuals will be named as plaintiffs to represent the class, and they need to adequately represent the interests of everyone in a manner that’s fair.
The benefit of class action litigation to members are:
- Less expensive to litigate. The costs are spread out over numerous plaintiffs, so the cost is more affordable, particularly if they are handled on a contingency fee basis, meaning plaintiffs don’t pay unless/until they win. Attorney’s fees are taken from the winnings.
- Access to claims. Individually, claims may not be worth that much, and they wouldn’t necessarily be worth pursuing on their own. Combined, however, plaintiffs have a chance to seek justice for a common wrong.
- Greater likelihood of payment. This may not be a great concern with a large company like Wal-Mart, but with smaller companies sued by numerous plaintiffs, sometimes only the first of those plaintiffs to take their case to trial will actually be paid damages before the defendant/company goes bankrupt.
- Judicial efficiency. The length of this case notwithstanding, one claim generally takes less time to resolve through the court system than dozens, hundreds or thousands of similar claims, which can clog the judicial process.
On the flip side, there are numerous risks to joining a class action. Those include:
- Lack of control. Except for the named representatives, class action lawsuit members have little control over how the case is handled or what settlement is ultimately reached.
- A longer process. This is an extreme example, but the reality is class action lawsuits can take a long time to resolve. It varies significantly depending on the individual facts of the case, but there are often complex legal procedures that can take ages to sort through.
- Lesser payout. Although every member of the case will get some payment if they win, but often class members’ individual shares don’t even fully cover their own damages.
It’s estimated there have been nearly a dozen smaller class action cases filed post-Dukes. Some individual cases have been filed and settled also.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Walmart sex-bias lawsuits severed, October 2019, Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette