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Supreme Court wrestles with sheer size of suit against Wal-Mart

Supreme Court justices ask: How can you determine damages for each woman in the class-action suit against Wal-Mart? Some 1.5 million women are suing Wal-Mart on sex-discrimination claims.

Plaintiff Betty Dukes stands outside the Supreme Court in Washington Tuesday after attending a case of women employees against Wal-Mart.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Members of the US Supreme Court waded into a thick, muddy morass of litigation on Tuesday and confronted a novel question.

Is a computerized formula a better guarantor of justice than an old-fashioned hearing with live testimony in a courtroom with a judge?

The issue arose in the historic gender discrimination case against the nation’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart.

At issue during oral argument was whether the lower courts properly allowed the case to move forward as a single, massive class-action lawsuit rather than breaking it up into smaller lawsuits, or dismissing it altogether.

The complaint was filed in 2001 on behalf of more than 1.5 million current and former women employees who were allegedly paid less and promoted less often than their male counterparts at Wal-Mart.

The case is being closely watched because the high court will likely use it as a way to bring clarity and certainty to an area of the law (class-action lawsuits) that is becoming increasingly swamp-like.

Class-action lawsuits are an essential feature of the US legal system, allowing individual victims to band together and have a fighting chance in court.

The average claim for a female employee at Wal-Mart is estimated at $1,100. An individual worker is unlikely to hire a lawyer to pursue such a case. But if lawyers are able to identify a pattern of discrimination that affects a larger number of workers, a class-action lawsuit will provide greater legal clout against a corporate giant like Wal-Mart.

The computerized-formula debate

That’s just half the case. On the other side, is the issue of how the courts can guarantee that Wal-Mart will receive a fair opportunity to defend itself while facing more than a million plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars in back pay and punitive damages.


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