By  on December 6, 2010

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that challenges a lower court’s class-action certification in what could be the largest gender-discrimination case in the nation’s history.

The impact of the case might be far-reaching, with Wal-Mart potentially facing billions of dollars in liability.

The high court will not address whether the $400 billion retailer discriminated against hundreds of thousands of female employees in pay and promotions, an allegation the company denies. It will rule on whether claims by individual employees can be combined into a single lawsuit that seeks back pay.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has granted review in this important case,” Wal-Mart said. “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.”

The appeal involves a lawsuit filed in 2001 by Betty Dukes and five other female employees alleging the company’s corporate structure discriminated against women regarding pay and promotions, among other accusations. Attorneys for the plaintiffs have since argued that the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, the largest U.S. private employer with 1.4 million workers and a total of 2.1 million worldwide, is trying to force the women to file individual cases, knowing that most of them cannot afford to bring them on their own.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s limited review of the class certification in this case,” said Joseph M. Sellers, lead co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “As that decision was based on a vast body of evidence, we are confident that the decision to certify the class was sound.”

Sellers said in an interview that the plaintiffs have “very strong evidence to demonstrate the [discriminatory] practices that we are challenging were consistent throughout the company and that there are questions being adjudicated at trial that are common to the class as a whole.”

Wal-Mart is appealing the 6-to-5 decision of a sharply divided U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which ruled in April that the gender-discrimination complaint could go to trial as a class-action lawsuit. The ruling affirmed a lower court’s certification and also allowed members to seek back pay and other relief.

The retailer, arguing against the class-action certification in court papers filed in August, said the former and current female employees would come from 170 different job classifications “in different stores in different states under the supervision of different mangers,” who could potentially seek billions of dollars in monetary relief. Wal-Mart said the women should file individual lawsuits against separate stores because each store operates as an independent business.

Intel Corp. was among several companies backing Wal-Mart’s position. It said in court papers, “Intel has a significant interest in maintaining proper limitations on class-action procedures,” contending such status can result in workers forcing large settlements.

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