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New Life to Gender Bias Claims Against Wal-Mart

(CN) - A federal judge erred in finding that the statute of limitations bars individual claims from one of the original plaintiffs in the gender-bias suit against Wal-Mart, the 5th Circuit ruled.

Stephanie Odle, of Lubbock, Texas, had been an original member of the class action Dukes v. Wal-Mart, but the 9th Circuit tossed "former employees" like her in 2010, concluding that they lacked standing to pursue injunctive relief.

A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court famously decertified the class of current employees on the basis of insufficient commonality.

Odle filed a separate class action in October 2011, four months after the Supreme Court decision, alleging that female workers face "gender discrimination as a result of specific policies and practices in Wal-Mart's regions located in whole or in part in Texas."

She accused Wal-Mart of denying women equal opportunities for promotion to management-track positions, as well as equal pay for hourly retail positions and salaried management positions.

Wal-Mart allegedly fired Odle from her assistant manager soon after she was transferred to a Texas store and asked to be considered for future management positions.

U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor in Dallas dismissed even Odle's individual claims, however, under the statute of limitations.

That ruling said Odle should have filed her suit by Jan. 28, 2011, within 90 days of a 9th Circuit's ruling on the Dukes case.

A three-judge panel with the 5th Circuit reversed Monday and remanded for reconsideration of Odle's individual claims.

The relevant statute of limitations remained tolled when Odle sued, the New Orleans-based federal appeals court found.

It emphasized that, in finding that former employees like Odle lacked standing to pursue class injunctive relief alongside current employees, the 9th Circuit had noted "that 'this does not mean that former employees are ineligible to receive any form of relief' because 'they may be eligible to receive back pay and punitive damages.'"

Upon remand, the Dukes trial court in San Francisco extended the tolling of the statute of limitations and extended deadline for filing subsequent suits to October 28, 2011.

Odle filed her federal complaint in Dallas on this deadline date.

"The court 'grant[ed] this limited period of additional tolling in the interest of justice and to avoid any confusion that [may have] exist[ed] among former class members regarding when the time limit for them to take action expire[d]," Judge Jacques Wiener Jr. wrote for the appellate panel.

Wal-Mart failed to show that the 9th Circuit's ruling was the "final adverse determination" in Dukes, according to the ruling.

Rather than "akin to a denial," the 9th Circuit's ruling merely "continued proceedings on the certification issue" for the former employees of Wal-Mart, the court found.

"Thus, the appeals court's ruling in Dukes was not a final, adverse resolution of class certification for former employees," Wiener wrote. "Until the California District Court determined on remand whether the class of former employees could and should be certified under Rule 23(b)(3), no court had expressly or impliedly ruled that the former Wal-Mart employees had 'officially lost their status as a class.'"

To rule Odle's claim as untimely would require the former class members to file "duplicative, needless individual lawsuits before the court could resolve the class certification issue definitively," Weiner added.

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