The fate of the largest job bias lawsuit in the nation's history — a claim that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. shortchanged women in pay and promotions for many years — hinges on whether the Supreme Court will let the class-action case go to trial.
The court is likely to announce as soon as Monday whether it will hear the retail giant's appeal asserting that a single lawsuit cannot speak for more than 1.5 million employees.
Business lawyers and civil rights advocates are closely following the Wal-Mart case for its implications for class-action litigation.
"This may sound like just a technical, procedural issue, but because of the economics of it, class-action certification is often the most important issue to be decided," said Washington lawyer Roy T. Englert Jr.
If the high court permits the Wal-Mart case to proceed as a class action, it will put enormous pressure on the retailer to settle, he said. The plaintiffs have not specified the damages they would seek, but given the size of the class, it could mount into billions of dollars.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several large corporations have joined with Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, in urging the high court to hear the appeal and to restrict the use of class-action claims.
They argue that it is unfair to permit plaintiffs' lawyers to lump together many thousands of employees from stores spread across the country and to rely on statistics to prove illegal discrimination.