By  on February 7, 2007

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a 2004 ruling granting class action status to 1.5 million current and former female Wal-Mart associates in the largest gender discrimination case in U.S. history.

The company unsuccessfully argued that such a large class would be unmanageable and that the plaintiffs' experiences were individual rather than representative of a discriminatory culture and practices at the $312 billion retailer.

"We find the district court acted within its broad discretion in concluding it would be better to handle this case as a class action rather than clogging federal courts with innumerable individual suits litigating the same issues over and over," the appeals judges wrote in the 53-page decision.

The suit, filed on behalf of Betty Dukes and five other former Wal-Mart associates, alleges women are paid less than male counterparts with similar experience and receive fewer promotions.

Wal-Mart said it would appeal.

"We are very optimistic about obtaining relief from this ruling as the case progresses," said Wal-Mart's lead attorney, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. "Wal-Mart has not conceded anything....Our position is, there is no common pattern and Wal-Mart has a strong diversity and anti-discrimination policy."

Dukes, the lead plaintiff, is an African-American woman who was promoted to manager and then demoted, allegedly in retaliation for her comments about gender discrimination.

"Our clients want to try their claims," said Joseph Sellers, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. "They want their day in court."

The lawsuit comes as Wal-Mart works to improve a blemished reputation that has impaired its ability to open stores in some communities.

About 65 percent of Wal-Mart's hourly workers are women, but only 14 percent of managers are women. An analysis of Wal-Mart's employment and payroll data, submitted during the court's discovery phase, showed women were paid 4.5 percent to 5.65 percent less than men with comparable experience.

The suit covers women who worked for Wal-Mart since December 1998, and seeks injunctive and declaratory relief, lost pay and punitive damages.

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