Nightly News   |  December 06, 2010

SCOTUS: Wal-Mart sex bias case may be too big

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Wal-Mart's appeal in the biggest class action lawsuit ever, bringing the huge sex discrimination case to a temporary halt. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And also in Washington tonight, the US Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the biggest job discrimination case in American history . It involves Walmart employees, past and present, who say the company gave better pay and more promotions to men at the expense of women. Walmart says the lawsuit is so big that it makes no sense. Our justice correspondent Pete Williams is at the Supreme Court tonight. Pete , good evening.

PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian , the court has brought this huge discrimination case to a temporary halt

while the justices prepare to answer this question: When it comes to big class action lawsuits, how big is too big? Everything about this case is super sized. The nation's largest retailer facing the biggest class action lawsuit ever. Hundreds of thousands of women who worked at Walmart and Sam's Club claim the company discriminated against them, giving better pay and bigger promotions to the male employees. Betty Dukes , a Walmart greeter in California , was among the first to sue when this case began nine years ago.

Ms. BETTY DUKES: We had no concept even how to apply for management. No one talked about management in our store. It never -- it never was addressed. There was a lot of hoops that you had to go through just to get promoted up into basic positions.

P. WILLIAMS: But Walmart says a class action lawsuit of as many as one and a half million women suing is too blunt an instrument, a weapon to force the company into a settlement. And with more than 4,000 stores, the company says, there's no way a single class action case could represent the employment practices of all those stores and managers.

Mr. THEODORE BOUTROUS (Lawyer for Walmart): It would be a very large class, and size isn't the only issue here. It's the diverse nature of the claims. That's what would make it so unfair, to try to -- try to try these kind of claims all in one fell swoop.

P. WILLIAMS: The US Chamber of Commerce , joined by many of the nation's big employers, including GE , NBC 's parent company , hope the court will use the case to put limits on class action suits which they claim have become abusive. But lawyers who have handled big discrimination cases say large class action lawsuits are sometimes the only way to get leverage against corporations when they violate civil rights.

Mr. DAVID SANFORD (Lawyer for Employees): The playing field is not level if one individual has to go up against Walmart . But if an entire class can proceed against Walmart , it levels the playing field , it makes it a fair playing field .

P. WILLIAMS: This certainly stops the Walmart case in its tracks and it may also delay other big class action lawsuits while the court sorts out the rules for deciding when they're too big. Brian :

B. WILLIAMS: Pete Williams at the court building tonight for us in Washington . Pete , thanks.