Sex Discrimination Wal-Mart: The 'Bitches' Story That Won't Go Away

07/17/2016 01:11 PM ET
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Updated Jul 20, 2016

In a relatively quiet court filing on July 15th, 5 women who sued Wal-Mart 15 years ago for sex discrimination in employment,  “reached a confidential settlement”  with Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and voluntarily agreed to dismiss their claims. Their 2001 lawsuit launched  a class action lawsuit with 1.5 million female plaintiffs―-who  were formally certified as a class in 2004, but were ultimately decertified as a class by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2011.

The original litigation alleged that female employees at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club were discriminated against based on their gender, with respect to pay and promotion to management positions—in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which became law two years after Wal-Mart opened for business.

A smaller class action suit also  was dismissed in federal court in 2013.

This past week’s ”confidential settlement” might have been the end of one of Wal-Mart most protracted and public legal battles―-but it was not.  The day before Betty Dukes and 4 other women workers at Wal-Mart dropped their suit,  6 other women from the affected plaintiff class stepped forward to assert their right to pursue their civil rights. Of these 6 women, 5 currently reside in California, and collectively they worked for Wal-Mart for a total of 89 years.

In their motion to intervene, the Wal-Mart 6 argued that they had “relied upon Ms. Dukes and the other named plaintiffs to protect their interests as class members.” But once the lead plaintiffs from 2001  “stipulated to dismissal of their cases,” the proposed Plaintiff intervenors “could no longer depend upon the named plaintiffs to protect their interests.” The six women filing to intervene are Joyce Clark, Suzanne Hewey, Kristy Farias, Lucretia Johnson, Hilda Todd and Kristin Marsh. They are seeking the right to obtain appellate review of the denial of class certification.

According to these plaintiffs, “Wal-Mart has engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminating against its female employees in making compensation and management track promotion decisions in its California Regions.” The women charge that “Wal-Mart has maintained a system for making decisions about compensation and promotion that has had an adverse impact on its female employees.” They are seeking “back pay, front pay, general and special damages for lost compensation and job benefits they would have received but for the discriminatory practices” of Wal-Mart.

The new intervention says that the Supreme Court decision “did not rule on the merits of the action, but only ruled that the class as certified could not proceed.” Since guidelines and standards for class actions were issued by the court after the 2011 ruling in the Dukes case, the plaintiffs now argue that the litigation can continue.

The new case focuses on present and former female workers in 2 Wal-Mart regions in Northern and Southern California, and bordering states, covering 202 Wal-Mart stores, and one Sam’s club region of 73 stores in California and 13 other states. In each of these regions, the litigation charges that Wal-Mart maintained “a pattern or practice of gender discrimination in compensation and promotion.” The plaintiffs argue that Wal-Mart was warned repeatedly “that woman are not sufficiently presented in management positions, that women are paid less than male employees in the same jobs, and that Wal-Mart lags behind its competitors in the promotion of women to management positions.”

According to the intervention filing:

  • A 1998 survey of Wal-Mart managers revealed that there was a “good ol’boy philosophy” at Wal-Mart, that many managers were “close minded” about the diversity in the workplace, and that some District Managers “don’t seem personally comfortable with women in leadership roles.”

  • The Walton Institute trains managers “that the reason there are few senior female managers at Wal-Mart is because men were ‘more aggressive in achieving those levels of responsibility’ than women.”

  • One of the plaintiffs heard a Store Manager make comments about women being “too weak to do the job” in management positions, and stating that ‘they are just bitches.”

  • One Regional Vice President presumed that “women did not seek management positions because of their ‘family commitments.’ ” A District Manager said higher male pay was justified “because they were the head of their households.”

  • One Sam’s Club manager “suggested to a female employee that she ‘doll up,’ and ‘blow the cobwebs off’ her make-up to make herself more promotable.”

It is not clear if this latest lawsuit will “blow the cobwebs off” Wal-Mart’s gender discrimination practices, but it certainly guarantees  that Wal-Mart’s ‘bitches problem’ is far from over. A hearing on the motion to intervene will take place in a San Francisco courtroom on August 19th.

 Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He has been helping communities fight unwanted big box developments since 1993. His most recent  book is Occupy Wal-Mart.