Betty Dukes worked for years at the Wal-Mart in Pittsburg, California, hoping for advancement. She found herself frustrated at the lack of promotion and poor treatment by managers. She believed their denial of opportunities to her was based on both her gender and her race. When her complaints to the corporation’s chain of command went unheard, she sought legal help. She became the face of the largest gender discrimination class action suit in United States history, Dukes v. Wal-Mart, first filed in a San Francisco federal court in 2001 and eventually including female Wal-Mart employees from all over the country. In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge’s order allowing the case to proceed as a class action with nearly a million class members. The lawsuit has not gone well for the plaintiffs since then.
Wal-Mart appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and it went to the United States Supreme Court. On June 20, 2011,the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit, denying the plaintiffs the right to go forward as a class. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, held that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that Wal-Mart had a “general policy of discrimination” that impacted all class members. In denying class certification, the Court noted that the plaintiffs worked in different stores in different regions and that they suffered different types of discrimination under different managers for different reasons.
The employees and their advocates, however, have not given up. New efforts to hold Wal-Mart accountable for alleged discrimination target smaller areas, rather than the entire country. New suits have been filed in California and Texas on behalf of plaintiffs from the original suit, and more regional suits may follow. These lawsuits tend to focus on the corporation’s stores within a single state, thus narrowing the scope of the alleged discrimination.