Wal-Mart discriminated against female employees in its 451 Texas stores, according to a class action lawsuit filed Friday. Four months ago, the Supreme Court threw out a nationwide class action suit against the world's largest retailer, on the grounds that all of the store's 1.5 million female employees were too diverse to constitute a class. The new lawsuit makes a more modest claim to class status: over 45,000 former and current employees of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., in Texas.
The lawsuit was filed by Stephanie Odie on behalf of all women similarly affected by what she calls "a pattern or practice of discrimination in management track promotions." The lawsuit charges that these Wal-Mart employees were given no information about how to enter management or the management trainee program required for advancement to upper-level positions. Managers allegedly did not post opportunities, conduct open applications procedures, or specify what the qualifications or requirements were.
The opaque and undocumented promotional process adversely affected Wal-Mart Stores' female employees, claims the complaint. Women were clearly underrepresented in management, compared to the company's largest competitors; plaintiff lawyers found that two-thirds of its hourly employees were women, but only one third of its managers were.
Managers allegedly relied on discriminatory stereotypes of female employees to justify passing them over for promotions or paying them less than their male colleagues.
A 1998 survey of managers mentioned in the lawsuit found a pervasive "good ole boy philosophy," and that some district managers "don't seem personally comfortable with women in leadership roles."
At a January 2004 meeting of Wal-Mart Stores' district managers presided over by then CEO Thomas Coughlin, the lawsuit claims that managers were told that the key to success was based on a "single focus to get the job done... women tend to be better at information processing. Men are better at focus single objective."
The lawsuit lists several instances in which managers told female employees that they were treated differently or paid less than men because they were women, and should be happy with what they had; that men had a family to support; that it was "a man thing"; and that they did not belong to the "good 'ole boy network."
One Woman's Story
In the lawsuit, Odle describes the obstacles that she personally faced in her eight years at Wal-Mart. Between 1991 and 1994, Odle was transferred to a number of Sam's Clubs, the Wal-Mart-owned membership-only retail warehouses, and ultimately promoted to assistant manager.
But over the next five years, she claims that management purposefully blocked her from reaching a higher position. She was suspended for five days in Sherman, Texas, for an alleged wrongdoing, denied access to the store, and forcibly transferred to Lubbock, Texas, to make room, she claims, for a male manager.
There, the three other assistant managers, all male, were given the required test for promotion, but her request for the same opportunity was denied. She was then placed on administrative leave for another fabricated wrongdoing, the lawsuit claims, "in order to make available a managerial position for a male manager from Arizona." She was terminated soon after.
A New Strategy
Odle's complaint, along with those of six other women, became the cornerstone of the monolithic class action suit Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, which spent a decade weaving its way through the courts. It was the largest civil rights class action lawsuit in U.S. history, and if successful, would have led to a payout of $1 billion or more, according to legal experts.
It was unsuccessful. The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, but rather dismissed the claim to class action status in a 5-4 ruling along ideological lines. Immediately afterward, Betty Dukes, the lead plaintiff, told reporters that "even though we didn't get the ruling that we hoped for, we still are determined to move forward and to present our case in court."
"Instead of one case, this case will be splintered into many pieces," Joseph M. Sellers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said at the time.
At a news briefing on Thursday, Sellers said attorneys were pursuing a state-by-state strategy.
Last week, the case was refiled on behalf of an estimated 90,000 current and former female employees in California. Today, it was filed on behalf of female employees in Texas.
The plaintiffs are seeking changes in Wal-Mart Stores' promotion policies in Texas, its compensation, and punitive damages.
Company spokesman Greg Rossitier said the state-wide class action claims are as faulty as the nationwide one.
A Good Place For Women?
Wal-Mart Stores said in a 2010 statement that the corporation "has been recognized as a leader in fostering the advancement and success of women in the workplace."
In September, it pledged billions to "help empower women across its supply chain." The company said it would source $20 billion from female-owned businesses, train and educate hundreds of thousands of female employees, as well as factory and farm workers along their supply chain, and give $100 million in grants to female empowerment organizations.
Wal-Mart claimed that the campaign had nothing to do with the hyper-public lawsuit that had battered the store's image, despite failing in court.
Wal-Mart's Rossitier repeated this refrain on Thursday. "Wal-Mart is not the company the plaintiffs' lawyers say it is," he said. "Wal-Mart is a great place for women to work."
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