WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a petition from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. challenging a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by three employees in Tennessee and seeking class-action status.
The high court’s rejection of Wal-Mart’s appeal means the regional gender bias lawsuit will be sent back to the lower court in Tennessee and can move forward.
Wal-Mart filed a petition for writ for certiorari in November, urging the justices to review whether a statute of limitations can be “extended indefinitely” to “absent and unknown persons” in class-action suits filing successive claims.
But the justices declined to hear the case, marking another chapter in the more than 15-yearlong legal battle that has embroiled the retail giant in gender discrimination allegations and lawsuits.
The decision comes in the wake of a landmark Supreme Court ruling — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes — in favor of the retailer in 2011 that decertified a class-action lawsuit involving an estimated 1.5 million employees.
Since that national decision handed down by the high court, hundreds of women have filed smaller, regional discrimination lawsuits against Wal-Mart in several states, including Tennessee, California, Texas and Florida.
In a new twist that could have some implications, the high court is operating with a vacancy left by the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart on the court’s 5-4 majority that often sided with businesses. Scalia wrote the majority opinion in favor of Wal-Mart in 2011.
While only four justices must agree to hear a case, legal experts have argued that Scalia’s absence will have a bearing on many pending cases before the court.
The Supreme Court’s decision Monday will now give the plaintiffs a chance to seek class certification.
“Our clients think it is victory,” said Joseph Sellers an attorney with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, representing the women. “They want their day in court and they want the opportunity to pursue these claims and challenge the practices that affected not only them but other women [at Wal-Mart]. They sought to pursue them together [in a class-action suit] and this gives them the opportunity to set the stage and try to achieve that.”
Wal-Mart defended its policies and said it would continue to fight the class-action claim.
“The issues we asked the Supreme Court to review were procedural and have nothing to do with the merits of the claims,” Wal-Mart said. “Plaintiffs’ lawsuit is an attempt to re-litigate claims and present a scaled-down version of a case based on the same theories the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in 2011. We strongly believe there is no basis for class treatment.”
“Wal-Mart has had a strong policy against discrimination in place for many years and it’s something we do not tolerate,” the company added. We continue to be a great place for women to work and advance and hundreds of thousands of women have had positive experiences that don’t match the claims of these three plaintiffs. We will continue to defend our company against this unwarranted class action claim.”
Three female Wal-Mart employees — Cheryl Phipps, Bobbi Millner and Shaw Gibbons — filed their discrimination case in district court in Tennessee in October 2012, seeking class-action certification and charging that Wal-Mart stores in Tennessee discriminated against women on pay and promotions.
The District Court in Tennessee dismissed the class-action allegations in February 2013, on the grounds that the class allegations were untimely and did not fall within the statute of limitations, but allowed individual claims to proceed.
The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s ruling in July 2015.
Wal-Mart appealed and argued in its Supreme Court petition that the Sixth Circuit’s ruling was “unprecedented and wrong” and broke four decades of consistent precedent.
“The Sixth Circuit held in this case that plaintiffs [and their lawyers] can file sequential class actions without regard to statutes of limitations, extending tolling indefinitely for absent class members who will never be responsible for taking any action to preserve or pursue their individual claims,” the retailer said.
“In other words, the Sixth Circuit concluded that absent persons need not file their own claims or move to intervene in a pending action following decertification; instead, strangers can simply revive [repeatedly] their untimely claims by filing yet another class action.”
Wal-Mart added that the ruling directly conflicted with the decisions of every other circuit court.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs countered that the appeals court ruling was not in conflict and that the claims were timely and could be pursued in a class action, as well as an individual action.