The Supreme Court’s decision on the Wal-Mart bias case may have a welcome secondary effect: cutting down on the enormous number of class action suits that clog the courts. The Wall Street Journal reports:
The decision is sure to reverberate in other employment class actions, with lower courts scrutinizing more carefully the factors that constitute a class for the purpose of bringing mass claims.
Wal-Mart defense attorney Theodore Boutrous said the ruling would have a significant impact on other pending gender class-action suits, including against Costco Wholesale Corp. The Costco suit alleges a “glass ceiling” for women at the store level. Costco, which has denied the allegations, declined to comment Monday. Brad Seligman, a lawyer for the Wal-Mart plaintiffs who also represents the Costco plaintiffs, said the latter case is far narrower, focusing on two job classifications-store manager and assistant store manager-and is unlikely to be affected by Monday’s ruling.
Class action suits have a place in our legal system. But often these suits are filed with the “class” so large and amorphous that some members supposedly represented would not want the self-appointed plaintiffs acting in their behalf. Case in point: In my 20s I worked briefly for a large organization that was sued for bias by female employees. Though I had not participated in the suit, one day out of the blue, I received a small check.
I did not cash my tiny windfall because–quite honestly–I could not recall having experienced a single incidence of bias. Justice Scalia wrote in the Wal-Mart decision that the charges against the discount giant were simply too vague to show that all women in Wal-Mart’s 3,400 outlets had been affected by what a handful of plaintiffs claimed.
No, it’s not the end of class action suits. But in the future the class may have to be a bit more cohesive. An Economist magazine blog explains:
The effect of the case will not be to kill class-action suits, but probably to trim class sizes. The court has laid down a standard that the commonality of a class cannot be presumed just because all presumptive members feel the same grievance. Some level of proof is needed that a single wrong (say, a biased promotion test) affected them all: a “culture of bias” is not enough. This forces a would-be class to prove part of the merits of their case at the procedural stage, rather than in a full trial. Knowing that the Supremes have raised the bar, this makes it likely that lawyers will tell would-be classes to keep their claims narrow and specific.
The Wal-Mart decision was a rare pro-business development in a Washington that in the last two year had done everything it can to stifle the job-creating engine of our society.