Today, the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in Dukes vs. Wal-mart, the gender discrimination lawsuit against Wal-mart. At stake is whether the case can continue as a class-action suit–that is, whether the plaintiffs in the case can represent over a million more women who worked for the company since 1998.
At Slate, Richard Thompson Ford explains why this case is so important–and why class action suits are so vital to enforcing non-discrimination laws.
“Most of the women in the Dukes class action would never bring an individual lawsuit. Proving individual discrimination is hard. Even if the statistics prove that Wal-Mart discriminated against a lot of women, very few would be able to prove that they were one of them. And even for those who could prove it, the damages they would be entitled to often aren’t worth suing over.
More important, civil rights have always been as much about social justice as individual justice. And social justice requires that employers who discriminate be held accountable so they won’t keep discriminating. The deterrent effect of a large class-action lawsuit may be the only thing that will encourage employers to root out discrimination among their managers: Tellingly, Wal-Mart has made an impressive effort to treat women more equitably in the 10 years since the case was filed. That’s why large pattern-and-practice civil rights cases have been one of the most important types of civil rights litigation since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If large civil rights class actions like the one in Dukes can’t get off the ground, then for the most part the government will be the only entity able to sue for firm-wide patterns of discrimination.
Ultimately what’s at stake in Dukes v. Wal-Mart is whether class-action lawsuits will continue to be a way to address pervasive discrimination, or whether America’s battle against prejudice will have to be fought on a case-by-case basis.”
The court is expected to reach a final ruling by the end of June. Unfortunately, Ford isn’t particularly optimistic that they’ll come down on the side of social justice.