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Supreme Court ruling affects employment class action filings

The 2011 Supreme Court's ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes provides employers, including those in Indiana, with an effective new tool to stave off employment discrimination class action lawsuits. In the underlying case, the plaintiffs sought certification as a class based on Wal-Mart's alleged systemic gender discrimination which served to keep women in lower-level, lower-paying positions than similarly situated male workers. Wal-Mart contended that it had a strong anti-discrimination policy, but allowed local managers to make personnel decisions. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled a large company such as Wal-Mart could not be held responsible for the decisions of its local managers, even if those decisions disproportionately and negatively impacted women.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides the standard for certifying classes of employees historically subjected to workplace discrimination, including minorities and women. This Supreme Court ruling requires aggrieved employees to share more specific similar characteristics for certification as a class.

Employers are now more successful in preventing certification of new class actions, dismantling legacy cases and getting prior adverse judgments thrown out. The Dukes ruling has been cited more than 1,200 times in federal and state cases. According to the Impact Fund, a national litigation resource center, the number of class action suits brought in a year prior to 2011 was 25 to 30; that range is now 10 to 12.

The Dukes ruling may have raised new barriers to class certification. However, Title VII still provides protections for workers who suffer workplace discrimination based on race, gender, disability or membership in other protected classes of employees. An employment attorney could inform a worker of which employment acts rise to the level of discrimination and the recourse available to someone who is discriminated against.

Source: Pro Publica, "The Impact and Echoes of the Wal-Mart Discrimination Case", Nina MArtin, September 27, 2013

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