Walmart prevailed on Friday in a gender bias case involving three former employees who claimed they were discriminated against in pay and promotions.
A Florida federal court ruled that although the plaintiffs’ arguments about systemic discrimination in the retailer’s ranks were compelling, they lacked the detailed proof they needed for their claims to proceed.
The former employees, Kathleen Forbes, Edna Remington and Linda Ray, had worked in Walmart for years from the mid-Nineties to the mid-Aughts, and in a range of roles including in manager positions. They claimed that while they worked there, they had been passed over for promotions in favor of male candidates and that even when they were promoted, they wound up earning less than male peers or even subordinates, according to court documents.
In Friday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola Jr. wrote that the plaintiffs’ characterization of their experiences working for the retailer “indicates that something was indeed rotten within the corporate culture at Walmart,” but that they didn’t clearly tie particular Walmart policies to the alleged discrimination they faced, he wrote.
“The plaintiffs lump all of Walmart’s policies and practices into one unified general decision-making process rather than identifying any specific individual policies,” he wrote in the ruling, which granted summary judgment in favor of Walmart. At the summary judgment stage, a judge generally rules on the foundations and arguments in a case, which can help forestall a trial and end the suit.
The plaintiffs’ allegations, which followed from the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes class action that the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled in 2011, echoed claims in several other ongoing discrimination suits proceeding individually against the retailer. Walmart has said it disputes such allegations.
“We are pleased the court found that the three plaintiffs failed to demonstrate they had been discriminated against in pay or promotion based on their gender,” Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said in a statement Monday.
“Walmart has had a strong policy against discrimination in place for many years, and the allegations are not representative of the positive experiences millions of women have had working at our company,” he said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t immediately comment on Monday.
In this case, the plaintiffs took aim at a number of alleged Walmart practices on pay and promotions, including a purported “tap on the shoulder” practice where candidates would be appointed to management roles by superiors. Company policies also prevented employees from discussing pay, and allowed managers discretion in awarding higher pay to certain employees, fostering problems with pay parity, the plaintiffs had claimed.
The judge’s discussion in Friday’s ruling on the weaknesses of these plaintiffs’ claims is meaningful, given the other similar ongoing suits against Walmart. The judge acknowledged as much, suggesting that plaintiffs who can tailor their arguments about workplace policies more precisely to their experiences at work would have a better chance of moving forward.
“It appears to be only a matter of time before plaintiffs’ counsel manages to get it right with one of the dozens of cases now pending before the court,” he wrote in the ruling.
“No doubt, in the right case and with the right advocacy, a female Walmart employee with better facts should be able to assemble a powerful case of gender discrimination that these plaintiffs allege has plagued the entire Walmart operation for many years,” he wrote.
Walmart previously persuaded the court to sever dozens of other gender discrimination claims before the court, which had been grouped together for the sake of discovery, or evidence gathering, and a potential trial. The judge had ruled in July that the individual circumstances of the current and former employees in those cases were too different to be considered together. Cases from that group have since been filed again individually.