By and  on February 16, 2009

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Friday won a round, and a chance to substantially reduce its financial exposure, in the largest sexual discrimination suit in U.S. history when a federal appeals court in San Francisco agreed to reconsider whether the case should go forward with class-action status.

The case, originally brought by Betty Dukes and five co-defendants in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in 2000, was granted class-action status in 2004, a decision that was upheld in 2007. If that decision were to be overturned, it would mean workers would have to proceed with individual actions against the world’s largest retailer rather than as a class of current and former employees encompassing at least 1.5 million women.

As lead plaintiff, Dukes claimed she was denied opportunities for advancement based on her gender.

Wal-Mart had unsuccessfully argued against class-action certification, stating the size of the class would make it unmanageable and that the individual experiences of the original plaintiffs weren’t indicative of Wal-Mart’s working environment and policies.

Friday’s decision calls for the class-action matter to be subject to “en banc” review, larger than the three-judge panel that had heard recent arguments.

“We are pleased with today’s positive step in this case,” stated Jeff Gearhart, who on Friday was named executive vice president and general counsel for Wal-Mart. “We look forward to presenting our arguments to a larger group of judges and are hopeful they will decide the case should not proceed as a class action.

“It is important to note that the merits of this case have not been considered by the courts,” he continued, “and we believe the experiences alleged by the six individuals who brought this suit are not representative of the experiences of our female associates. Wal-Mart is a good place for women to work and fosters female leadership among our associates and in the larger business world.”

Gearhart’s predecessor as general counsel, Tom Mars, was appointed to the new post of executive vice president and chief administrative officer of its namesake stores in the U.S. with responsibility for the oversight of human resource functions including diversity, compensation, talent development and employment practices and policies, as well as corporate compliance.

Calls to several of the plaintiffs’ attorneys weren’t returned over the weekend.

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