On February 6, 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a closely watched gender discrimination case brought by six female employees against Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer.  The six plaintiffs allege that, despite having equal or better qualifications, they were paid less than male employees for the same work and that they received fewer promotions to store management positions than their male coworkers.

In addition, the plaintiffs argue that Wal-Mart allowed these discriminatory practices to occur on a nationwide basis.  Thus, according to the plaintiffs, they should be permitted to sue as a class action on behalf of all female Wal-Mart store employees in the United States.  Both the plaintiffs and Wal-Mart estimate that, during the relevant time period covered by the lawsuit, Wal-Mart employed at least 1.5 million women in its stores.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision which found the case to be suitable for a class action and, therefore, allowed what is unquestionably the largest employment class action in history to proceed.  Importantly, the court did not express any opinion on whether Wal-Mart actually discriminated against the plaintiffs or the remaining 1.5 million class members.  It only held that the plaintiffs could pursue their claims as a class action.

This decision does not change or develop the law to any significant degree.  However, the decision and the case itself will continue to generate intense publicity due to the size of the class and the potential damages at stake.  Attorneys for the plaintiffs claim that Wal-Mart is liable for billions of dollars in back pay.  Wal-Mart has already stated that it intends to ask for a rehearing of the issue before a larger panel of judges in the Ninth Circuit.