Jay Himes, William Reiss, Aug 15, 2011
In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the United States Supreme Court rejected class certification in a gargantuan gender discrimination case against Wal-Mart. The primary issue, as the Supreme Court framed it, was whether the showing by the plaintiffs-present and former female employees-met Rule 23(a)(2)’s “commonality” requirement. More specifically, could the litigation be said to present “questions of law or fact common to the class” where the plaintiffs did not demonstrate an express Wal-Mart policy or practice of discriminating against women, but instead showed, at most, only that: (1) Wal-Mart granted discretion to thousands of store managers to make pay and promotion decisions in a subjective manner; and (2) the company’s corporate culture and personnel practices made it “vulnerable” to gender discrimination. The Supreme Court’s five-justice majority held that this was not enough to show commonality, and that the lower courts had, accordingly, erred in certifying a class. The four dissenting justices expressed the view that the majority’s rejection of certification for lack of commonality “import[ed] into the Rule 23(a) determination concerns properly addressed in a Rule 23(b)(3) assessment,” where “the questions of law or fact common to class members [must] predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.”
Dukes may well have significant implications for Title VII civil rights class actions, particularly those in which circumstantial evidence is central to proving the discriminatory policy or practice. But the Court’s ruling is unlikely to have a major impact in antitrust cases. If an antitrust complaint is sufficient to plead price-fixing or (less frequently) monopolization, there is inevitably a common question. Either the defendants conspired to fix prices, or the dominant player engaged in distribution or pricing conduct, that had downstream or upstream effects. Thus, the class certification battle is unlikely to be waged over commonality, but will instead take place under Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement, alluded to by the Dukes dissent. On these issues, Dukes, a 23(a)(2) ruling, offers no real guidance.