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High Court To Hear Wal-Mart Discrimination Case

The Supreme Court will consider throwing out a massive lawsuit that claims Wal-Mart pays women less than men and promotes women less frequently.

The justices stepped into a case Monday that could involve 500,000 to 1.5 million women who work or once worked at the world's largest private employer. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. calls it the largest employment class action in history.

Wal-Mart is appealing a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the class-action lawsuit could go to trial, with potentially billions of dollars in legal damages at stake.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. calls it the largest employment class action in history.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart and the many business interests backing its appeal, say allowing the large number of claims to go forward would set off an avalanche of similar class-action lawsuits in California and the other Western states overseen by the 9th Circuit.

But the lawyers representing the women who are suing Wal-Mart say there have been only eight such suits nationwide — and none within the 9th Circuit — since the first appeals court ruling in favor of the women nearly four years ago. "This threatened landslide of class-action litigation has not materialized," the lawyers said in legal papers filed with the Supreme Court.

Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million people in the United States and 2.1 million workers in 8,000 stores worldwide. The company said the women should not be allowed to join together in the lawsuit because each outlet operates as an independent business. Since it doesn't have a companywide policy of discrimination, Wal-Mart argued that women alleging gender bias should file individual lawsuits against individual stores.

The plaintiffs contend that the company was aware that it lagged behind other employers in terms of opportunities for women and that Wal-Mart imposes uniform rules and tight controls over its stores.

The lawsuit was first filed by six women in federal court in 2001. The 9th Circuit has three times ruled that the case could proceed as a class action.

In its latest decision, in April, the appeals court voted 6-5 in favor of the plaintiffs. Judge Michael Daly Hawkins said that the number of women involved is large, but "mere size does not render a case unmanageable."

Judge Sandra Ikuta's blistering dissent said the women employees failed to present proof of widespread discrimination. Without such evidence, Ikuta said, "there is nothing to bind these purported 1.5 million claims together in a single action."

The case, Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, will be argued in the spring.

In other action Monday, the court also:

— turned away an appeal from a federal death row prisoner Bruce Carneil Webster, who was sentenced to death more than 14 years ago for kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old girl and has since tried in vain to persuade federal judges that he is mentally retarded. Webster is not contesting his conviction, just his death sentence. But under a 1996 law, a federal court can only consider new evidence this late in the appeals process when it would provide evidence of a defendant's innocence.

— agreed to hear an appeal from electric utilities that are trying to short-circuit an effort by states to force cuts in power plant emissions. Justices said they would consider ending a federal lawsuit by eight states, New York City and others that accuse the power companies of being among the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. The suit asks a federal judge to order reductions in the emissions in plants in 20 states.

This program aired on December 6, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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