Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Be conscious of inequities when gauging litigation

Four years ago, in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was inappropriate to certify a nationwide class of 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees allegedly denied pay and promotions because of a corporate-wide "policy" of sex discrimination. SCOTUS’s Dukes decision ended a decade of litigation over the propriety of the attempted nationwide class action.

More than a year after the Dukes decision, Cheryl Phipps, Bobbi Millner, and Shawn Gibbon launched a similar lawsuit in federal court in Tennessee, but instead seeking a region-wide sex-discrimination class. Wal-Mart alleged that the claims, more than a decade old, were time barred. Yesterday, in Phipps v. Wal-Mart Stores [pdf], the 6th Circuit formally disagreed.

For civil procedure geeks (like myself), the case is a fascinating read on the theory of statutes of limitations and equitable tolling. That analysis, however, is well beyond the scope of what I hope to accomplish with my little slice of the Internet.

Here’s the practical take-away. Employers favor certainty, knowing that if an employee fails to file a lawsuit 90 days after the EEOC issues its right-to-sue letter, for example, the employee waived the right to assert federal discrimination claims. Courts, however, favor equities, and try to avoid inequitable results. Sometimes, these ideals clash. When this happens, employers cannot assume victory, and should brace themselves accordingly.

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