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Under The Supreme Court, Women May Get The Shaft In Walmart Suit

A class action suit that may include as many as 1.5 million women who claim sex discrimination on the job by Walmart is the biggest in U.S. history — though there are signs it won’t remain so for much longer.

The class action already has been approved by a federal judge and a federal appeals court, but it took a beating during argument at the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

Some analysts had said if the high court even accepted the case for review, instead of letting the lower-court verdict stand, it would be a sign that the 5-4 conservative majority wanted to strike the class certification.

Professor Deborah Hensler of Stanford Law School told the Chicago Tribune last year, “If the Supreme Court takes this case, it will signal this business-friendly court is hostile to class actions against corporate defendants.”

“This is the big one that will set the standards for all other class actions,” Robin S. Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center, an agency of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The New York Times. The center filed several friend of the court briefs supporting Walmart at the Supreme Court.

The implication is that Walmart, headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., and one of the world’s largest corporations, is just too big to be the target of a class action.

The company tried to emphasize the massive nature of the class in its petition to the Supreme Court asking for review.

“This nationwide class includes every woman employed for any period of time over the past decade, in any of Walmart’s approximately 3,400 separately managed stores, 41 regions and 400 districts, and who held positions in any of approximately 53 departments and 170 different job classifications,” the company’s petition said. “The millions of class members collectively seek billions of dollars in monetary relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that tens of thousands of Walmart managers inflicted monetary injury on each and every individual class member in the same manner by intentionally discriminating against them because of their sex, in violation of the company’s express anti-discrimination policy.”

The Supreme Court review does not involve the merits of the suit — whether Walmart is guilty of discrimination against women — but whether the enormous class action, driven by statistics, should be allowed to proceed or whether the women must sue individually or in small groups.

The case started in 2001 in San Francisco when six women filed suit claiming Walmart discrimination, in part because they were passed over for promotion in favor of men. One of the six says she was told, “It’s a man’s world.”

Washington attorney Joseph Sellers, who argued for the women before the Supreme Court last week, told United Press International last year, “There’s a substantial body of evidence that comes from Walmart’s own workforce data,” including “very sophisticated analysis” to show what company policy was. Despite the size of the class, Walmart can use that evidence in an attempt to show that there was no company-wide discrimination, just as plaintiffs can use the same evidence to show there was, he said.

“We have evidence that there is a culture at the company that condones or says women are second-class citizens,” Sellers said, some of it surfacing at managers’ meetings at strip clubs or at Hooters restaurants.

Sellers had to think fast on his feet last Tuesday — ironically during Women’s History Month — as justice after justice tried to shred his argument from the bench.

Four of the court’s five-member conservative majority — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — were expected to give Sellers a tough time, with Justice Clarence Thomas asking no questions, as is his custom.

The four-member liberal bloc was expected to give him help. The female members of the court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan did their best to steer the argument in favor of the class action. Ginsburg argued the concept of gender discrimination into law in a series of brilliant cases in the 1970s.

But the fourth member of the bloc, Justice Stephen Breyer, barely spoke Tuesday, and kept his cards close to his vest.

The time allotted for Walmart’s lawyer, Los Angeles attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., was relatively calm except for pointed questions from the women, but Sellers got a grilling.

Roberts was the first to strike, asking Sellers, “Is it true that Walmart’s pay disparity across the company was less than the national average” for similar retailers?

“I don’t know that that’s a fair comparison,” Sellers replied, adding Walmart was making that comparison “with the general population, not with people in retail.”

Kennedy was more acerbic. “It’s not clear to me: What is the unlawful policy that Walmart has adopted,” he asked Sellers, “under your theory of the case?”

“Justice Kennedy, our theory is that Walmart provided to its managers unchecked discretion,” Sellers said, with women getting fewer opportunities and less pay even with more seniority and higher performance reviews.

“Your complaint faces in two directions,” Kennedy said from the bench. “No. 1, you said this is a culture where … the headquarters knows everything that’s going on. Then in the next breath, you say, well, now these supervisors have too much discretion. It seems to me there’s an inconsistency there, and I’m just not sure what the (alleged) unlawful policy is.”

“There is no inconsistency any more than it’s inconsistent within Walmart’s own personnel procedures,” Sellers replied. A federal judge “found specific features of the pay and promotion process that are totally discretionary. There’s no guidance whatsoever about how to make those decisions. … But the company also has a very strong corporate culture … what they call the ‘Walmart way,’ and the purpose of that is to ensure that in these various stores that, contrary to what Walmart argues, that these are wholly independent facilities, that the decisions of the managers will be informed by the values the company provides to these managers in training.”

“Well, is that disparate treatment?,” Kennedy asked. “Disparate” or unequal treatment is a necessary element for discrimination.

“It is disparate treatment,” Sellers insisted. “It is a form of disparate treatment because they are making these decisions because of sex.”

Scalia echoed Kennedy.

“I’m getting whipsawed here,” he said. “On the one hand, you say the problem is that (local managers) were utterly subjective, and on the other hand you say there is … a strong corporate culture that guides all of this. Well, which is it? It’s either the individual supervisors are left on their own, or else there is a strong corporate culture that tells them what to do.”

Sellers replied that managers have broad discretion, but don’t make their decisions in a vacuum.

Scalia kept charging ahead.

“What do you know about … the unchallenged fact that the central company had a policy, an announced policy, against sex discrimination,” he asked, “so that it wasn’t totally subjective at the managerial level? It was, ‘You make these hiring decisions, but you do not make them on the basis of sex.’ Wasn’t that the central policy of the company?”

“That was a written policy,” Sellers said. “That was not the policy that was effectively communicated to the managers.”

Post-mortem evaluations of the argument were almost uniformly pessimistic for the class’s survival.

Lyle Denniston, dean emeritus of the Supreme Court press corps, wrote on SCOTUSBLOG.com that it took only a few minutes of argument “for a potentially fatal flaw … to stand out boldly.”

The basic claim in the suit is that Walmart maintains a common culture — “the Walmart Way” — to ensure uniformity in its 3,400 stores, Denniston wrote, but the corporate headquarters gives local store managers unlimited discretion to decide pay and promotions — resulting in lower pay and fewer promotions for women.

Kennedy’s point was those factors may seem contradictory.

But for a class action to survive under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “the legal and factual issues must share commonality” at a minimum, Denniston wrote. Much of last week’s argument focused on that key requirement.

In the Los Angeles Times, an article partly written by veteran Supreme Court correspondent David Savage said the statistics may support the women. Lawyers say two-thirds of Walmart’s employees were women though men made up 86 percent of store managers when the stats were gathered five years ago.

But the article said “the tenor of Tuesday’s argument suggested that the massive, decade-old suit may run aground before it can move toward a trial.”

The Times said even though the male conservative justices were more aggressively negative, all of the justices expressed at least some reservations.

The justices should rule before the summer recess.

Bottom line from UPI: Justices could certainly change their minds, but based on their behavior during argument, look for the class to be struck down by at least a 5-4 vote, and a larger margin, 6-3 or 7-2 or more, is certainly within the realm of possibility.

By: Michael Kirkland, UPI.com, April 3, 2011

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Corporations, Employment Descrimination, Equal Rights, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Republicans, Supreme Court, Walmart, Women, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gaming the System: At The Supreme Court, Could Legal Precedent Be Less Important Than Popular Opinion?

Articles of faith, as a rule, don’t change every few months. And yet, just nine months ago, it was an article of faith among court watchers that President Obama’s health care reform plan would be upheld at the Supreme Court by a margin of 7-2 or 8-1. Today it is an equally powerful article of faith that everything rests in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy in what will surely be a 5-4 decision. What changed between last March and last Monday?

To review: When the first lawsuits were filed challenging the law in March 2010, the conventional wisdom was that they were little more than a Tea Party stunt. “Several constitutional law experts said this week that it is somewhere between unlikely and hard-to-imagine that the Supreme Court would strike down the new healthcare law,” wrote David Savage at the Los Angeles Times. He quoted George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr, a former Kennedy clerk, saying that “there is a less than 1 percent chance that the courts will invalidate the individual mandate.” In Newsweek in September 2010, Stuart Taylor quoted Walter Dellinger, acting solicitor general under President Clinton, predicting an 8-1 vote at the high court, and Tom Goldstein, another prominent court watcher and litigator, calling for a vote of 7-2.

Fast forward to this week. As my colleague David Weigel put it Monday: “The fate of health care reform is where it was yesterday—in the hands of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.” The Wall Street Journal agreed, sighing, “As with so many contentious issues in American life, destiny appears to have appointed [Kennedy] the ultimate arbiter of the constitutionality of the linchpin of this new law: the individual mandate.” Now, the composition of the court has not changed since last year. Nor has the meaning of the Commerce Clause, or the decades of precedents interpreting that doctrine, or the words of the Affordable Care Act itself. The only thing that has shifted between the filing of the Obama health care suits and Judge Roger Vinson’s decision finding the entire bill unconstitutional is the odds. We went from “a less than 1 percent chance” of the suits succeeding to their success being determined by a coin flip in Anthony Kennedy’s chambers.

Putting aside the question of whether it matters what court watchers think—or whether the new odds should make any difference—it’s astounding to witness the conventional wisdom shift so dramatically and so rapidly. It took years for court watchers to take challenges to the collective-rights theory of the Second Amendment seriously. It’s taken just weeks for them to come to believe that the fate of the health care law may be decided by a single vote.

To those in the business of making predictions about the Supreme Court justices, one thing that did change was a smoke signal sent up by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia last month in a passionate dissent from the court’s refusal to hear a case from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Alderman v. United States involved the right of the federal government to criminalize a violent felon’s purchase of body armor. And as Andrew Cohen explained it, the two justices weren’t obligated to publish a lengthy dissent, spelling out—complete with references to Hershey’s Kisses (the new broccoli?)—their view that the Commerce Clause does not allow the federal government to make such a regulation. Their small treatise on the limits of the Commerce Clause’s power, Cohen wrote, “confirms to the world that no more than seven votes on the Supreme Court are still in play over the constitutionality of the federal health care measure.”

Court watchers have long argued that Scalia cannot possibly square his vote (indeed his own words) in the 2005 case of Gonzales v. Raich with a vote to strike down health care reform. Once they read the Thomas/Scalia dissent in Alderman, they had to swallow hard. In Raich, Scalia agreed that Congress could regulate marijuana that was neither purchased nor sold in any market but grown for medicinal reasons at home. “The authority to enact laws necessary and proper for the regulation of interstate commerce is not limited to laws governing intrastate activities that substantially affect interstate commerce,” Scalia wrote. “Where necessary to make a regulation of interstate commerce effective, Congress may regulate even those intrastate activities that do not themselves substantially affect interstate commerce.” He added that “Congress may regulate even noneconomic local activity if that regulation is a necessary part of a more general regulation of interstate commerce.”

These words matter a lot to supporters of health care reform. But it’s no longer clear how much they matter to Justice Scalia.

Simon Lazarus has a thoughtful post about all the ways in which the court’s more conservative justices—not just Scalia but also Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts—”will have to twist their prior decisions and statements into pretzels in order to rule the individual mandate or other ACA provisions unconstitutional.” Reading Raich against the Alderman dissent, I am not sure all the justices are terribly bothered at the prospect of performing such gymnastics. Supreme Court reporters like to believe that the justices are invariably hemmed in and pinned down by their prior decisions, and in a perfect world they might be. But if we learned anything at all from Bush v. Gore, it’s that in landmark cases with huge symbolic stakes, justices on both sides of the aisle can get all kinds of creative.

If that is the case, then in the coming months we should pay less attention to the words of Raich and more to the political scientists and judicial behavior theorists who have a lot to say about how justices decide cases. What really changed between last March and this week is that in making predictions about what happens to health care reform, we have almost entirely stopped talking about the law or the Constitution and begun to think solely in terms of strategic judicial behavior.

Court watchers on both sides of the debate seem to agree that Vinson’s opinion was rooted more in his convictions about the need to restrain federal overreaching than in the court’s modern Commerce Clause precedents. The question now seems to be less about whether the justices can find a way to strike down the law if they so choose—they can—than whether they have the political stomach to do it.

I am not an expert on judicial stomachs. But it seems to me that once you start thinking strategically about how health care reform will fare at the Supreme Court, pretty soon you arrive at some serious questions about the continued legitimacy of the court, judicial responses to public sentiment, and other matters that have far more to do with social psychology than Wickard v. Filburn.

Everyone would like to believe that the kind of constitutional issues presented in these health care suits are clear and specific. But they are precisely the sort of wide-open normative inquiries that may tempt even great and fair jurists to have a little extra-textual fun. “American constitutional lawyers, whether practitioners, academics or judges, seem to feel relatively few genuine constraints in the kinds of arguments they are willing to make or endorse,” professor Sanford Levinson has written. “It is, I am convinced, harder to recognize a frivolous argument in constitutional law than in any other area of legal analysis.”

If the odds of success for the health care challenges have tilted in recent months, it’s not because the suits themselves have somehow gained more merit. It’s because the public mood and the tone of the political discourse have shifted dramatically—emboldening some federal judges willing to support a constitutional idea whose time, in their view, has finally come. Whether this sea change will affect the Supreme Court remains to be seen. At least on paper, the Supreme Court is immune to whatever the odds makers are saying about the law’s chances. If recent weeks have shown us anything, however, it’s that what’s on paper doesn’t matter as much as we think it does in the nation’s courts.

By: Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, February 2, 2011

February 7, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Constitution, Health Reform | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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