The U.S. Supreme Court on June 20 rejected a class-action suit against retail giant Wal-Mart by 1.5 million female workers who claimed they had been systematically discriminated against on the basis of gender.
In the most closely watched decision of the year, the top court ruled that the women could not all claim to have suffered the same discrimination as every other member of the suit.
The issue was important because had the court decided in favor of the plaintiffs, the largest class-action suit in history would have proceeded, exposing the world's largest retailer to demands for tens of billions of dollars in back pay and punitive damage.
By rejecting the suit, the nine justices limit the recourse available to the women, who claim to have been paid far less and benefited from fewer promotions than their male colleagues.
Miller: 'Another Blow to a Woman's Right to Fair Pay'
U.S. Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, called the high court's decision "another blow to a woman's right to fair pay and fair treatment on the job."
"There is no place in this country for a business to pay women less or promote them less because of their gender," the California Democrat said. "Americans have come to know the phrase 'too big to fail' when it comes to our nation's big banks. Today, the Supreme Court said that women's efforts to join together nationwide to seek justice against a powerful corporation can be so big they must not be allowed to succeed."
Miller asserted that the ruling points to the need for Congress to strengthen civil-rights laws, "especially when it comes to ensuring equal pay for equal work, by enacting measures like the Paycheck Fairness Act."
"Nondiscrimination is not just a moral issue." Miller said. "In this economy, with family budgets stretched so thinly, no breadwinner can afford to have her pay reduced or her career ladder cut short because she simply happens to be a woman."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011
This article includes additional reporting by IndustryWeek senior editor Josh Cable.