Monday, June 7, 2010

Don't put it in writing if you don't want it on the front page of the New York Times (literally)

I’m guessing that when Wal-Mart hired a prominent law firm to examine gender disparities in pay and promotions, along with its vulnerability to a discrimination lawsuit, it did not expect the results to be splashed on the front page on the New York Times business section 15 years later. Given the results, though, maybe it should have expected to be defending a class action sex discrimination case. Quoting Steven Greenhouse from the Times’s article:

The law firm … found widespread gender disparities in pay and promotion at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores and urged the company to take basic steps—like posting every job opening and creating specific goals to promote women and minorities—to avoid liability.

The 1995 report said that women employed by Wal-Mart earned less than men in numerous job categories, with men in salaried jobs earning 19 percent more than women. By one measure, the law firm found, men were five and a half times as likely as women to be promoted into salaried, management positions.

Without significant changes, the lawyers said in their confidential analysis, Wal-Mart “would find it difficult to fashion a persuasive explanation for disproportionate employment patterns.”

It is likely that Wal-Mart and the plaintiffs will wage World War III over the discoverability of this report. If a jury hears that Wal-Mart’s own lawyers agree with the plaintiffs that widespread pay and promotion disparities exist, the plaintiffs will have a much easier liability case. And, if the plaintiffs can further show that that Wal-Mart ignored its lawyers’ advice, we’ll be talking punitive damage numbers that will shake you to your core.

While I traditionally subscribe to the motto, “Don’t put in writing if you don’t want it on the front page of the New York Times,” as an attorney I am deeply troubled by the prospect that confidential advice I provide to my clients could be discovered in a later lawsuit, let alone used at trial. The advice we give our clients should be sanctimonious. If I’m investigating a sexual harassment complaint, I understand that because the company’s response to the complaint is an element of the claim and its defense, my finding will become part of the case. But, if I am asked to perform an independent audit of my client’s HR practices, I have no reason to think that it will ever become part of later litigation. Businesses should have attorneys involved in proactively monitoring their workplace policies and procedures, and should do so without fear that the advice they receive will be used against them.

For more coverage of this story, I recommend Stephanie Thomas’s The Proactive Employer, and Dan Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or