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Wal-Mart to Face Class Action, Circuit Rules

(CN) - Wal-Mart will have to face charges that it pays women less than men after the 9th Circuit ruled Monday that a massive class action employment discrimination lawsuit can go to trial. The split 6-5 decision means the world's largest private employer may face billions in legal damages.

Six women sued in San Francisco Federal Court in 2001, claiming they were paid less than men in comparable positions and got fewer promotions. They also claimed they had to wait longer than men to move up the ladder.

In an 84-page order, the district court certified the class to encompass "all women employed by Wal-Mart at any time after Dec. 26, 1998." It included all positions at the company's 3,400 stores.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based company appealed, arguing that women who claim discrimination should have to file individual lawsuits, and that the number of proposed litigants that the lawsuit represents is too big to defend.

"[T]he district court has the discretion to modify or decertify the class should it become unmanageable," Judge Michael Day Hawkins wrote in the 137-page opinion. "Although the size of this class action is large, mere size does not render a case unmanageable."

In her dissent, Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote, "No court has ever certified a class like this one, until now. And with good reason. In this case, six women who have worked in thirteen of Wal-Mart's 3,400 stores seek to represent every woman who has worked in those stores over the course of the last decade - a class estimated in 2001 to include more than 1.5 million women."

She continued" [W]hile the six plaintiffs allege that they have suffered discrimination at the hands of a few individual store managers, they fail to present 'significant proof' of a discriminatory policy or practice of Wal-Mart that would make it possible to conclude that 1.5 million members of the proposed class suffered similar discrimination."

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