WASHINGTON — Christine Kwapnoski hasn't done too badly in nearly 25 years in the Wal-Mart family, making more than $60,000 a year in a job she enjoys most days.
But Kwapnoski says she faced obstacles at Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club stores in both Missouri and California: Men making more than women and getting promoted faster.
Supervisor told her to 'doll up'
She never heard a supervisor tell a man, as she says one told her, to "doll up" or "blow the cobwebs off" her make-up.
Once she got over the fear that she might be fired, she joined what has turned into the largest job discrimination lawsuit ever.
The 46-year-old single mother of two is one of the named plaintiffs in a suit that will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. At stake is whether the suit can go forward as a class action that could involve 500,000 to 1.6 million women, according to varying estimates, and potentially could cost the world's largest retailer billions of dollars.
Importance of suit goes far beyond Wal-Mart
But the case's potential importance issue goes well beyond the Wal-Mart dispute, as evidenced by more than two dozen briefs filed by business interests on Wal-Mart's side, and civil rights, consumer and union groups on the other.
The question is crucial to the viability of discrimination claims, which become powerful vehicles to force change when they are presented together, instead of individually. Class actions increase pressure on businesses to settle suits because of the cost of defending them and the potential for very large judgments.
Prof says decision will be far-reaching
Columbia University law professor John Coffee said that the high court could bring a virtual end to employment discrimination class actions filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, depending on how it decides the Wal-Mart case.
"Litigation brought by individuals under Title VII is just too costly," Coffee said. "It's either class action or nothing."
llustrating the value of class actions, Brad Seligman, the California-based lawyer who conceived of and filed the suit 10 years ago, said the average salary for a woman at Wal-Mart was $13,000, about $1,100 less than the average for a man, when the case began. "That's hugely significant if you're making $13,000 a year, but not enough to hire a lawyer and bring a case."