BOSTON — It’s highly unlikely a decision will be reached Thursday, yet the hearing about whether or not to grant class-action status to a gender-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart is already generating feverish interest.
Reporters, institutional investors and even a few buy-side analysts are expected to pack into a San Francisco federal courtroom today to hear arguments from attorneys representing six Wal-Mart female employees who allege the retailer’s storied culture masks systematic discrimination against women.
Following the conclusion of the four-hour hearing, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams is slated to hold a press conference outside the courtroom, an unusual level of attention from the Bentonville, Ark., giant, which is sued many hundreds of times each year.
Indeed, the stakes are high for the retailer. Women are both the majority of its customers and its hourly workers.
If San Francisco federal judge Martin Jenkins certifies the suit as a class action, the case would be a headline grabber, with a record-setting 1.5 million current and former Wal-Mart employees eligible.
Based on pre-hearing questions submitted to both sides by Judge Jenkins, plaintiff’s attorney Larkin believes “the real crux of the judge’s concern is not whether or not we satisfy the requirements for class action, but whether the judge can manage a class of that size.”
Larkin, who works with Impact Fund, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit organization, said she and co-counsel will argue “in great detail that the use of certain technologies will make it imminently possible to manage this case.”
Wal-Mart’s counsel will argue that the retailer “is a great place for women to work” and that the complaints are “isolated,” according to a spokeswoman. “We promote women at the same rate they apply for jobs — or better,” she stated, adding the retailer “provides more opportunities for women than any other employer in the country.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers are expected to present their interpretation of six years of Wal-Mart employment data, turned over as part of the discovery, which they claim shows women were paid 4.5 to 5.6 percent less than men with comparable experience in comparable positions.
The plaintiffs’ study also holds it took women 1.6 years longer than men to advance from hourly jobs to management roles and that, when they reached those positions, they were paid less than male peers.
The disparity, according to court papers filed by plaintiffs is a “system that encourages and permits the use of arbitrary and subjective decision-making” by store managers about who is chosen for management training.
Wal-Mart is expected to counter with its own interpretation of its data.
“Plaintiffs have a huge burden of proof to meet. They must prove that the allegations of the seven named plaintiffs represent the experience of more than 1.5 million women, current and former, in more than 3,000 Wal-Mart stores. That’s simply not logical, and we don’t think they can even come close to delivering that proof,” she said.
San Francisco-based law firm Paul, Hastings, Walker & Janofsky LLP, class-action specialists representing the retailer, declined to comment.