Lawyers Note Dukes's Impact On Class Actions Over Job Bias

Bloomberg Law for HR Professionals is a complete, one-stop resource, continuously updated, providing HR professionals with fast answers to a wide range of domestic and international human resources...

ATLANTA--The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes did not spell the end of employment discrimination class actions, attorneys said Oct. 13 at an employment law conference sponsored by the National Employment Lawyers Association.

The class action attorneys also said the decision provides guidance on how such cases need to be proved, including direction on the use of expert witnesses on social science and other issues.

Suzanne E. Bish of Stowell & Friedman in Chicago told participants that, despite Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes( 131 S. Ct. 2541, 112 FEP Cases 769 (2011); 62 BTM 193, 6/21/11), “class actions are not dead, and in fact they may have experienced a rebirth.”

In Dukes, the Supreme Court ruled improper a lower court's certification of a nationwide class of about 1.5 million female current and former Wal-Mart employees, finding a lack of commonality or a common question of law or fact central to resolution of each class member's claims.

Bish represents the class in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc.( 672 F.3d 482, 114 FEP Cases 710 (7th Cir. 2012); 63 BTM 77, 3/6/12).

In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected the employer's attempted reliance on Dukes as a reason to deny class certification.

Instead, in ruling that roughly 700 black Merrill Lynch financial advisers can pursue a “limited” race discrimination class action under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for injunctive relief, the Seventh Circuit found that, although the African American brokers similarly argued that Merrill Lynch--as does Wal-Mart--delegates discretion to its managers, the brokers also presented evidence that such discretion was influenced by two companywide policies pertaining to the formation of teams and account redistribution.

The Supreme Court denied review of McReynolds earlier this month.

Bish said that under Dukes, as interpreted by McReynolds, “a single common question can be enough to establish commonality.”

In addition, she said, Dukes “has breathed new life into class action law, or certainly into our case,” in which class certification had been denied pre-Dukes, Bish said.

She added that Judge Richard A. Posner, who wrote the Seventh Circuit's opinion in McReynolds, seemed to understand the cognitive, or implicit, bias at issue in the case without crediting the underlying social science.

Two Cases Not Identical

Joseph M. Sellers of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Washington, D.C., who represented the class in Dukes, said it is important to recognize that the Dukes decision is keyed to the portions of the record on which the Supreme Court chose to focus.

Dukes simply ruled that challenges to delegations of discretion to managers alone are insufficient to warrant class status, because they do not challenge an “unlawful employment practice” for purposes of Title VII, he said. The high court also found that the social science evidence offered in Dukes was not sufficiently refined, because it did not focus on particular Wal-Mart stores, he added.

Nevertheless, Sellers stressed, Dukes does not stand for the proposition that social science experts always must quantify their research or opinions, as some commentators have argued.

He added that the distinction between Dukes, McReynolds, and Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp. (116 FEP Cases 118 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 25, 2012); 62 BTM 309, 9/27/11), another case in which a nationwide class recently was allowed to move forward under Title VII, is the evidence in the latter two cases of a “top-down” policy through which the delegation of discretion to managers operates.

By Patrick Dorrian  


Request Bloomberg Law for HR Professionals