Today the Supreme Court sounded the death knell for Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the class action lawsuit accusing Wal-Mart of paying and promoting women less than similarly- or less-qualified men. To protect corporations from having to do more to prevent gender discrimination than pop a few politically correct paragraphs into the employee handbook, the Supreme Court resorted to a belabored procedural argument that incentivizes corporations to do as little as possible to prevent discrimination. The five-Justice majority did not rule on whether or not Wal-Mart actually discriminates against women – they didn’t let the case get that far. Instead they shut it down by changing the rules of engagement.
One of the plaintiffs’ central arguments was that Wal-Mart has a policy of leaving promotion and pay decisions to the discretion of individual managers, and that these managers have made discriminatory decisions. If the women suing Wal-Mart had prevailed, every American employer would have been on notice that it is not enough to sit on their corporate hands and allow gender discrimination to take its natural course in this way. Instead they would have had to make it their business to ensure that their managers treated women fairly. But the Court didn’t want that, as the majority feels that “allowing discretion by local supervisors” is “a very common and presumptively reasonable way of doing business.” (In his opinion for the majority Justice Scalia also announces, without citing any evidence, that most managers work carefully to avoid discrimination in their pay and promotion decisions when left to their own devices. That makes it all the more puzzling why the higher one gets in the corporate hierarchy in the U.S., the fewer women there are.)
So the Supreme Court looked to procedure. To bring a case as a class action in federal court, the plaintiffs have to get permission from the judge to proceed as a class. This makes sense: you wouldn’t want someone to be able to file a lawsuit on your behalf without an objective outsider considering whether the lawsuit was in your interest and whether the person filing it would represent you well. To protect you from becoming part of a class action that doesn’t benefit you, plaintiffs have to persuade a judge that they satisfy the requirements of what is known as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 before their lawsuit can proceed as a class action.
One of Rule 23’s prerequisites is that “[o]ne or more members of a class may sue…as representative parties on behalf of all members only if there are questions of law or fact common to the class.” The Wal-Mart plaintiffs clearly alleged common questions of law or fact, including statistical evidence that Wal-Mart pays and promotes men more than women; Wal-Mart’s policy of leaving decisions regarding promotion and (within certain ranges) pay up to individual managers; evidence that Wal-Mart has a uniform corporate culture across its stores; and evidence that Wal-Mart’s culture fosters discrimination against women. These are precisely the kind of “common questions of law or fact” that courts routinely accept as satisfying the Rule 23 “commonality” prerequisite.
The Court used this previously clear “common questions of law or fact” requirement to thwart the Wal-Mart women by redefining the requirement beyond recognition. According to Justice Scalia, “common questions of law or fact” now means that plaintiffs must “demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury.” In no universe that I have visited do these two phrases require the same thing.
It’s not clear just how far the Court will take this bizarre new rule. Does “same injury” mean that the plaintiffs must show that every single class member was denied the exact same promotion? Or that each one was underpaid by the same amount? Scalia writes that it does mean that suffering “a violation of the same provision of law” won’t suffice as suffering the “same injury.” This is a remarkable and counterintuitive holding: after this ruling, a group cannot sue their joint employer for violating the same legal right for each one of them. Instead they have to prove that the legal violation harmed them in the same way. This is completely backwards: courts exist to redress violations of the law, regardless of whether those violations cause their victims to suffer in the same or different ways. It is thanks to this procedural backflip that Wal-Mart and other employers can now delegate their way out of being responsible for discrimination in their workplaces.
Arguably before Monday’s Dukes v. Wal-Mart decision, American employers were subject to legal liability if they delegated so much discretion to individual managers that those managers created a pattern of discriminating against women – at least, the four Justices in the minority believe that this was the law. Now employers have every incentive to take their hands off the reins and let managers make pay and promotion decisions based on whatever criteria they choose. This is a major loss for women, minorities, senior citizens, the disabled, and any other group that tends to get the short end of the stick in the workplace. The procedural manipulations required to reach this point have caused a major loss for any group of people that seeks to redress a legal violation through a class action: now each individual will have to pay for legal representation alone and probably forego evidence of violations against similarly situated people. Goliath has won, and it is every David for himself.