The Supreme Court announced today its decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart (pdf). We wrote about this case in April 2010 (when the 9th Circuit allowed the case to go forward) and last September, when Wal-Mart petitioned the Supreme Court for review. Today’s decision is a resounding win for employers.
The majority determined that class certification was inappropriate for two reasons. First, plaintiffs failed to show that common questions of law and fact predominated. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia focused on the lack of any express policy or practice uniting the claims of the 1.5 million potential class members who’ve worked at any of Wal-Mart’s 3400 stores in the last 12 years.
The minority opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg, disagreed that it was necessary for the Court to even address the commonality issue. And if it was, she argued, a policy of giving supervisors unfettered discretion to make employment decisions could be an appropriate subject for class treatement if it had an adverse impact on female employees.
The second reason for overturning the class certification — the one on which all the justices agreed — was that these particular claims for back pay (as opposed to injunctive relief) were not appropriate for class-wide determination.
There’s a lot more that can and will be said about this decision. But the result should help many employers and their counsel sleep better. As Justice Scalia acknowledged, "the crux of the inquiry" in any discrimination claim is the reason for a particular employment decision. The idea that a plaintiff could meet his burden of proof through statistical or anecdotal or sociological evidence that would then be extrapolated to thousands of co-workers is frightening.
There will still be class action discrimination claims. But as of today, the Supreme Court raised the bar for bringing them.