Poor Philip's Online Almanack

Supreme Court rules for Wal-Mart in massive job discrimination lawsuit.

    The Supreme Court put the brakes on a massive job discrimination lawsuit against mega-retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., saying the plaintiffs had not shown justification for sweeping class-action status that could have potentially involved hundreds of thousands of current and former female workers. The 5-4 ruling Monday -- which addressed the claims in the lawsuit only in terms of whether they supported such a huge a class action -- was a big victory for the nation's largest private employer, and the business community at large.

The high-profile case-- perhaps the most closely watched of the high court's term -- is among the most important dealing with corporate versus worker rights that the justices have ever heard, and could eventually affect nearly every private employer, large and small.

"On the facts of the case," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority, the plaintiffs had to show "significant proof that Wal-Mart operated under a general policy of discrimination. That is entirely absent here."

He added, "In a company of Wal-Mart's size and geographical scope, it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common direction."

While this particular class action has effectively ended, the individual plaintiffs could band together and file a series of smaller lawsuits aimed at individual stores or supervisors.

Four more liberal justices agreed this particular class should not proceed to trial, but criticized the majority for not allowing the female workers to move ahead with their claims under a different legal approach.

"The court, however, disqualifies the class from the starting gate," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"Wal-Mart's delegation of discretion over pay and promotions is a policy uniform throughout all stores," said Ginsburg, arguing the plaintiffs' claims had some validity. Establishing that delegation of discretion "would be the first step in the usual order of proof for plaintiffs seeking individual remedies for companywide discrimination." She was supported by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The company said it was pleased with the court's decision.

"As the majority made clear, the plaintiffs' claims were worlds away from showing a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy," said Gisel Ruiz, a company executive vice president. "Wal-Mart has a long history of providing advancement opportunities for our female associates and will continue its efforts to build a robust pipeline of future female leaders."

At issue was whether as many as 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees could make a unified claim of systemic discrimination, which they say has occurred over the past decade, at least. The plaintiffs alleged women were paid less than, and were given fewer opportunities for promotion than, their male counterparts. They sought back pay and punitive damages against the world's largest retailer.

A divided 6-5 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year had allowed the combined, multiparty litigation to move ahead to one trial, where a verdict against the company could result in tens of billions of dollars in damages.

The Supreme Court ruled only on whether the original lawsuit should be handled as a class action, instead of lower courts potentially being flooded with thousands of individual discrimination claims against the company. If the justices had ruled against Wal-Mart, permitting class-action status, it could have put severe pressure on the company to settle the claims out of court.

The lawsuit alleged the company's "strong, centralized structure fosters or facilitates gender stereotyping and discrimination." The workers who brought the suit also said women make up more than 70 percent of Wal-Mart's hourly workforce but in the past decade made up less than one-third of its store management.

The litigation was filed in 2001 by Betty Dukes, a store greeter in Pittsburg, California, along with five of her co-workers from different facilities. She and another of the original six plaintiffs attended the oral arguments in Washington in March.

"I brought this case because I believe that there was a pattern of discrimination at Wal-Mart, not just in my store, but I believe that it is across the country," she told CNN at the court. "Since we have filed our lawsuit in 2001 I have heard from numerous women telling me basically the same story as mine of disparate treatment in lack of promotion as well as in lack of pay."

The company protested the size of the class action, which it called "historic" in scope, saying it would be too onerous to litigate. The company has more than 4,300 U.S. facilities in 41 regions.

Most workplace discrimination lawsuits fail to reach a court for resolution, according to data compiled by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 2003, when the Wal-Mart litigation was in its preliminary court stages, about 27,000 sex discrimination claims nationwide were resolved administratively by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, little changed from the prior decade. More than 57 percent -- some 15,000 claims -- were ruled administratively to have "no reasonable cause" and those usually were dismissed.

Just over 10 percent were judged to have merit, resulting in a total of $94.2 million in settlements, or $34,200 on average per case, according to the data, which include all such claims, not just those involving Wal-Mart.

The case was also a clash of dueling cultures -- some have dubbed it the Battle of Bentonville vs. Berkeley, for the corporate headquarters and the home to the liberal legal team outside San Francisco where the lawsuits first percolated.

While the high court split on whether there was a common policy of discrimination at Wal-Mart, all nine justices agreed on the key questions of damages: the class-action claim lacked merit, said the court, because the plaintiffs sought individual awards of back pay for the women. Such "monetary relief" claims could not be made under the current class-action certification rules, said the ruling.

"Class counsel has planned for various outcomes before the Supreme Court -- including this one -- and have put in place plans to assist as many women Wal-Mart class members as possible with their claims," said a joint statement issued by a group representing the plaintiffs. "The fight for justice will continue."

Declaring class-action status for the lawsuit would have raised the financial and judicial stakes considerably, since more individual plaintiffs could have joined, creating greater potential liability for the company. In federal courts, such certification must generally follow well-established principles to ensure a lawsuit does not become so large as to be impracticable, and does allow the parties to fairly represent the common interests of the larger class of plaintiffs.

Wal-Mart also has been accused in separate lawsuits of discrimination against African-American truck drivers and workers with disabilities. In 2001 the company settled 13 lawsuits by paying out $6 million. It employs 1.4 million people in the U.S. alone.

Arizona wildfire disrupts flights, threatens air quality in New Mexico.

     More than 2,500 fire fighters struggled Tuesday to gain the slimmest of advantages over a fast-moving wildfire that has already burned across 365 square miles of mountainous eastern Arizona. As of Tuesday afternoon, only four structures had been lost in the fire, a point not lost on Brenda McCardle of Eagar, Arizona, who got a visit from sheriff's deputies Monday night telling her to be ready to get out at a moment's notice should the fire race too close to her home at the base of Flat Top Mountain. 

    "They are doing a wonderful job of protecting property while fighting this fire," she said.

    She said smoke from the fires comes and goes near her home, a reminder of the threat from one of the worst wildfires in Arizona history.

    Yesterday, after the visit sheriff's deputies, McCardle said she was "crying and my brain felt dead."

    "Today, I am preparing suitcases, and my mind is clearer," she said.

    What has become known as the Wallow Fire was producing dense plumes of smoke that were visible from space and thick enough to reduce visibility to less than a mile in some places, the National Weather Service said in an air quality alert issued Tuesday.

Crews may get a break from winds as Arizona blaze rages on.

    Crews battling one of the worst wildfires in Arizona could get their biggest break yet Friday when the high winds driving the flames are expected to weaken. The blaze has scorched an area bigger than Los Angeles, sending thousands fleeing.

    Firefighters battling the so-called Wallow Fire gained ground Thursday for the first time since the blaze broke out in late May. They also confirmed that 29 houses have been destroyed. 

    The number includes 22 homes in Greer that were annihilated when the blaze blew through town Wednesday afternoon. 
    Officials were in the process of telling evacuated residents whether their homes had been spared or destroyed, a spokesman said Thursday night.
    "For most of us in the fire world, it's unfortunately become a common occurrence that we experience loss of residences," said Jim Whittington, spokesman with the Southwest Interagency Incident Management team. "It doesn't matter if they're rich or poor, if they live in a mansion or if they live in a very small house, the pain on people's faces is exactly the same."

    "Our hearts go out to those folks and we're thinking about you," Whittington said.

    Gary Linthicum of Scottdale told CNN affiliate KNXV that his family's summer home in Greer was among houses destroyed.

"My wife's taking it pretty hard," Linthicum said. "It was kind of a special place to her and all the kids so it's going to be something we're going to miss."

The house is valued at $1.2 million and is insured, the affiliate said.

Thousands evacuate, ashes spread after Chilean volcano erupts.

    Parts of southern Chile remained on red alert and schools in some areas of neighboring Argentina were closed Monday after a volcanic eruption coated the countryside with ashes, authorities said.

Smoke and ash shot more than six miles into the the sky when the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano complex in southern Chile first erupted Saturday afternoon. Authorities evacuated about 3,500 people from the area, the state emergency office said.

"I ask all the population (in designated areas) to evacuate as soon as possible, because ... human life could be at risk," said Juan Andres Varas, regional governor of Los Rios, Chile.

In a statement posted on the Los Rios government's website Monday, he said volcanic material and potentially toxic gases were slowly advancing toward the nearby Nilahue Valley.

"Fortunately, the valley doesn't drop abruptly, so we have time to evacuate," he said.

Schools in some cities and rural areas in neighboring Argentina were closed Monday, even as the volcanic activity appeared to have diminished, the state-run Telam news agency said.