Analysis Law and Policy

Why It’s So Hard to Sue Wal-Mart for Gender Discrimination

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A recent decision out of San Francisco shows just how difficult it is to hold large corporations accountable through class-action lawsuits, thanks to the Roberts Court.

It can take years for the effects of even the big Supreme Court decisions to really take hold. Consider the case of Wal-Mart v. Dukes two years ago, a decision that revoked class-action certification from what would have been one of the largest gender bias lawsuits of its kind. At the time, more than 1.5 million female Wal-Mart workers claimed the retailer unlawfully discriminated against them when it came to their pay and promotions, because of a corporate culture that enabled stereotyping of female workers. The Supreme Court rejected these claims, holding that the women didn’t have enough in common to justify hearing their claims against Wal-Mart together as one case.

Disappointed but undeterred, the women pressed on, determined to bring their claims even if they were narrower. But last week the plaintiffs suffered another setback as a federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a claim by 150,000 of the 1.5 million original plaintiffs on the grounds that while the new proposed class of plaintiffs is definitely smaller than the original class rejected by the Supreme Court, there still isn’t enough proof the women suffered similar treatment to justify hearing their claims all at once. Instead of seeking to press their claims on a nationwide class of workers at Wal-Mart’s 3,400 stores, as the original complaint against the retail giant did, the female workers had asserted that they represented about 150,000 employees in what is called the “California region” of the company—an area made up of three Wal-Mart geographic zones and 250 stores. This new class of plaintiffs sought to represent any female workers who had been on the company payroll between December 26, 1998, and December 31, 2002, and who were subject to pay scales based on hourly rates and on salary levels, and were eligible for promotion to management trainee or area manager.

But this smaller, regional approach was not enough to convince the federal courts to allow the claims to proceed. U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, a Clinton appointee and brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, concluded:

[T]hough they have cut down the raw number of proposed class members significantly, Plaintiffs continue to challenge four different kinds of decisions across hundreds of decision makers, inviting failures of proof at multiple points in each region.

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This new, smaller class “continues to suffer from the problems that foreclosed certification of the nationwide class.” Though the workers “insist that they have presented an entirely different case from the one the Supreme Court rejected, in fact it is essentially a scaled-down version of the same case with new labels on old arguments.”

According to Breyer, this new group of plaintiffs failed both in its claim that Wal-Mart pay and promotion practices treated female workers worse than male workers, and its separate claim that those practices had a more negative impact on women than on men. Breyer conceded that the suing employees “had amassed substantial evidence of discrimination against women that occurred at Wal-Mart stores during the period at issue in this suit,” but, thanks to a new standard set by the Supreme Court in the 2011 decision, even this substantial evidence of discrimination was not enough to justify a class-action lawsuit against the retailer.

The problem, however, is that this challenge of proof is largely in the eye of the beholder. When this case first reached the Supreme Court in 2011, the plaintiffs presented statistical evidence suggesting widespread gender discrimination in Wal-Mart’s hiring practices, discrimination that was made possible because of pervasive sex stereotyping in the corporate culture of Wal-Mart. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained in her dissent, “Women fill 70 percent of the hourly jobs in the retailer’s stores but make up only 33 percent of management employees,” while “the higher one looks in the organization the lower the percentage of women.” In his opinion last week, District Judge Breyer conceded the record had ample evidence of a discriminatory culture within Wal-Mart, but because the conservative majority on the Roberts Court rejected the use of statistical sampling to prove liability on a class-wide basis, (despite the fact the method had been permitted in other cases) he had no option but to dismiss the smaller, California region of Wal-Mart workers’ claims. Instead, he explained, the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision made it clear that to meet the “commonality” requirement to justify a class action, plaintiffs would still have to offer individualized proof of their claims, proof that is possible to develop only through individual investigations and complaints—proof that the 150,000 plaintiffs still could not produce. In short, the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision created an impossible standard for potential class-action plaintiffs to meet, and the penalty for failing to meet that impossible standard was to lose the ability to bring a class-action claim at all.

In many ways, last week’s decision to toss out the newer class of plaintiffs was inevitable after the Dukes decision, and was just the result the conservative justices were going for. Class-action lawsuits enable groups of individuals with similar legal claims to join together into a single lawsuit and bring their claims as one. Class-action lawsuits are incredibly important tools to hold corporations accountable, especially in cases like the Wal-Mart pay claims where individual damages may not amount to a lot of money but in aggregate do immeasurable damage to workers and the economy. They are also critical in actually holding corporate power accountable. Lawsuits are expensive, and wage claims don’t often add up to enough money for the victim to justify the expense of hiring a lawyer—and virtually no lawyer is willing to take a low-dollar case on a contingency fee basis, because the legal fees will likely outweigh the overall dollar value of the claim. But if each individual claim is counted together as one then suddenly those small claims add up to one very big, very expensive lawsuit for a company like Wal-Mart to defend or settle. The idea is that the threat of class-action lawsuits, both in terms of cost to defend and the risk of a large verdict, is enough to get corporations to change their behaviors and police themselves. Obviously that’s not happening, and thanks to the Supreme Court there’s not a lot workers can do to change that fact.

The district court’s decision leaves the female workers to try to prove their own claims of gender discrimination individually. The plaintiffs could appeal this decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately to the Supreme Court. But given the Roberts Court’s outright hostility toward workers’ rights, especially the rights of women workers, there’s little reason to think the results would improve.

Analysis Politics

Paul Ryan Uses Falsehoods Behind Texas HB 2 to Push Yet Another Abortion Restriction

Ally Boguhn

In a CNN town hall Tuesday night, Paul Ryan agreed with an audience member's baseless sentiment that the Supreme Court had struck down “commonsense health and safety standards at abortion clinics" in its Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt ruling.

During a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) pushed falsehoods about the anti-abortion provisions at the center of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt being necessary for patient health and safety. Ryan nonsensically then used the decision as a launch point to promote House Republicans’ Conscience Protection Act, which passed in the House Wednesday evening and supposedly shields those who object to abortion from discrimination. The only things Texas’ provisions and the legislation have in common, however, is that they’re all about blocking access to abortion care.

Town hall audience member and executive director of New Jersey Right to Life Marie Tasy claimed during the event Tuesday that the Supreme Court had struck down “commonsense health and safety standards at abortion clinics,” in its landmark ruling against two provisions—the admitting privileges and surgical center requirements—of Texas’ HB 2.

“Absolutely,” Ryan said in response to Tasy’s remarks. “I agree with that.”

But the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

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Despite this, Ryan then used the falsehood at the center of HB 2 as a call to action for yet another anti-choice restriction: the Conscience Protection Act. After fielding the question from Tasy about how anti-choice issues could be advanced in Congress in the wake of the Court’s decision, Ryan pivoted to claim that the government is “forcing people to conduct [abortion] procedures”:

Actually, tomorrow we are bringing a bill that I’ve been working on called the Conscience Protection Act. I’m pro-life. I think you probably know that. And I would like to think we could at least get consensus in this country that taxpayers shouldn’t be funding abortions. That the government shouldn’t be forcing people to conduct procedures, especially health-care workers, against their own conscience.

Our First Amendment is the right of conscience, religious freedom. Yet our own government today, particularly in California, is violating that right and not allowing people to protect their conscience rights, whether they’re Catholic hospitals or doctors or nurses. Tomorrow we’re bringing the Conscience Protection Act to the floor and passing it. It’s Diane Black’s bill. And it is to give those citizens in America who want to protect their conscience rights their ability to defend those rights. That is one thing we’re doing tomorrow to protect the conscience, because I believe we need to cultivate a culture of life. And at the very least, stop the government from violating our conscience rights.

Ryan would go on to make similar remarks the next day while speaking on behalf of the bill on the House floor, though this time he added that the “bill does not ban or restrict abortion in any way …. All it does is protect a person’s conscience.” 

As Rewire‘s Christine Grimaldi previously reported, the Conscience Protection Act would codify and expand on the Weldon Amendment. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the amendment prohibits states that receive federal family planning funding from discriminating against any health care entity-including physicians, health-care professionals, hospitals, and insurance plans, “on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

The Weldon Amendment currently must be passed each year as part of annual appropriations bills.

Grimaldi noted that the act “would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face alleged coercion or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in abortion care.”

Ryan proposed similar conscience protections as part of his recently released health-care plan, though, as Grimaldi wrote, “the Conscience Protection Act goes a step further, allowing providers to sue not only for threats, but also for perceived threats.”

But those whom Ryan and his colleagues are claiming to defend already have protections that impede access to abortion care, according to critics of the measure.

Ryan, for example, suggested in both his CNN appearance and his House floor speech the next day that California’s requirement that insurance plans must cover elective abortions under “basic health services” violates “religious freedom.” But a June investigation by the HHS Office for Civil Rights into whether California’s requirement violated the Weldon Amendment rejected similar complaints by anti-choice group Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Let’s be very clear—right now, current law says that hospitals, insurers, and doctors may refuse to perform an abortion or provide coverage for abortion, which already greatly limits women’s access to legal procedures,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) Wednesday, speaking after Ryan on the House floor during remarks before the Conscience Protection Act passed.

“More importantly, when a woman’s health is in danger, providers would not be required to act to protect the health of that mother. This bill would allow them to refuse to … facilitate or make arrangements for abortion if they have a moral objection to it,” continued Schakowsky. “They could also refuse to provide transportation to another hospital if a woman is in distress if that hospital provides abortions.”

Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, explained in a statement following the passage of the legislation in the House that the measure is about blocking access to abortion. “The Conscience Protection Act is dangerous, discriminatory legislation designed to block women’s access to abortion care,” said Ness.

“For example, a hospital could rely on the Conscience Protection Act to turn away a woman in an emergency situation who needs an abortion or refuse to provide a woman information about her treatment options. This legislation is a license for providers to discriminate against women and undermine their access to essential, constitutionally protected health care,” Ness said.

Commentary Abortion

It’s Time for an Abortion Renaissance

Charlotte Taft

We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long, it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

My life’s work has been to transform the conversation about abortion, so I am overcome with joy at the Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Abortion providers have been living under a very dark cloud since the 2010 elections, and this ruling represents a new day.

Abortion providers can finally begin to turn our attention from the idiocy and frustration of dealing with legislation whose only intention is to prevent all legal abortion. We can apply our energy and creativity fully to the work we love and the people we serve.

My work has been with independent providers who have always proudly delivered most of the abortion care in our country. It is thrilling that the Court recognized their unique contribution. In his opinion, after taking note of the $26 million facility that Planned Parenthood built in Houston, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote:

More fundamentally, in the face of no threat to women’s health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities. Patients seeking these services are less likely to get the kind of individualized attention, serious conversation, and emotional support that doctors at less taxed facilities may have offered.

This is a critical time to build on the burgeoning recognition that independent clinics are essential and, at their best, create a sanctuary for women. And it’s also a critical time for independent providers as a field to share, learn from, and adopt each other’s best practices while inventing bold new strategies to meet these new times. New generations expect and demand a more open and just society. Access to all kinds of health care for all people, including excellent, affordable, and state-of-the-art abortion care is an essential part of this.

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We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long—with our financial, emotional, and psychic energies drained by relentless, unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation—it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

Now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that abortion regulations must be supported by medical proof that they improve health, and that even with proof, the burdens can’t outweigh the benefits, it is time to say goodbye to the many politically motivated regulations that have been passed. These include waiting periods, medically inaccurate state-mandated counseling, bans on telemedicine, and mandated ultrasounds, along with the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements declared unconstitutional by the Court.

Clearly 20-week bans don’t pass the undue burden test, imposed by the Court under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, because they take place before viability and abortion at 20 weeks is safer than childbirth. The federal Hyde Amendment, a restriction on Medicaid coverage of abortion, obviously represents an undue burden because it places additional risk on poor women who can’t access care as early as women with resources. Whatever the benefit was to late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) it can’t possibly outweigh that burden.

Some of these have already been rejected by the Court and, in Alabama’s case, an attorney general, in the wake of the Whole Woman’s Health ruling. Others will require the kind of bold action already planned by the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations. The Renaissance involves raising an even more powerful voice against these regulations, and being firm in our unwillingness to spend taxpayer dollars harming women.

I’d like to entertain the idea that we simply ignore regulations like these that impose burdens and do not improve health and safety. Of course I know that this wouldn’t be possible in many places because abortion providers don’t have much political leverage. This may just be the part of me that wants reproductive rights to warrant the many risks of civil disobedience. In my mind is the man who stood in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square. I am yearning for all the ways to stand in front of those tanks, both legal and extralegal.

Early abortion is a community public health service, and a Renaissance goal could be to have early abortion care accessible within one hour of every woman in the country. There are more than 3,000 fake clinics in this country, many of them supported by tax dollars. Surely we can find a way to make actual services as widely available to people who need them. Of course many areas couldn’t support a clinic, but we can find ways to create satellite or even mobile clinics using telemedicine to serve women in rural areas. We can use technology to check in with patients during medication abortions, and we can provide ways to simplify after-care and empower women to be partners with us in their care. Later abortion would be available in larger cities, just as more complex medical procedures are.

In this brave new world, we can invent new ways to involve the families and partners of our patients in abortion care when it is appropriate. This is likely to improve health outcomes and also general satisfaction. And it can increase the number of people who are grateful for and support independent abortion care providers and who are able to talk openly about abortion.

We can tailor our services to learn which women may benefit from additional time or counseling and give them what they need. And we can provide abortion services for women who own their choices. When a woman tells us that she doesn’t believe in abortion, or that it is “murder” but she has to have one, we can see that as a need for deeper counseling. If the conflict is not resolved, we may decide that it doesn’t benefit the patient, the clinic, or our society to perform an abortion on a woman who is asking the clinic to do something she doesn’t believe in.

I am aware that this last idea may be controversial. But I have spent 40 years counseling with representatives of the very small, but real, percentage of women who are in emotional turmoil after their abortions. My experience with these women and reading online “testimonies” from women who say they regret their abortions and see themselves as victimized, including the ones cited by Justice Kennedy in the Casey decision, have reinforced my belief that when a woman doesn’t own her abortion decision she will suffer and find someone to blame for it.

We can transform the conversation about abortion. As an abortion counselor I know that love is at the base of women’s choices—love for the children they already have; love for their partners; love for the potential child; and even sometimes love for themselves. It is this that the anti-abortion movement will never understand because they believe women are essentially irresponsible whores. These are the accusations protesters scream at women day after day outside abortion clinics.

Of course there are obstacles to our brave new world.

The most obvious obstacles are political. As long as more than 20 states are run by Republican supermajorities, legislatures will continue to find new ways to undermine access to abortion. The Republican Party has become an arm of the militant anti-choice movement. As with any fundamentalist sect, they constantly attack women’s rights and dignity starting with the most intimate aspects of their lives. A society’s view of abortion is closely linked to and mirrors its regard for women, so it is time to boldly assert the full humanity of women.

Anti-choice LifeNews.com contends that there have been approximately 58,586,256 abortions in this country since 1973. That means that 58,586,256 men have been personally involved in abortion, and the friends and family members of at least 58,586,256 people having abortions have been too. So more than 180 million Americans have had a personal experience with abortion. There is no way a small cadre of bitter men with gory signs could stand up to all of them. So they have, very successfully so far, imposed and reinforced shame and stigma to keep many of that 180 million silent. Yet in the time leading up to the Whole Woman’s Health case we have seen a new opening of conversation—with thousands of women telling their personal stories—and the recognition that safe abortion is an essential and normal part of health care. If we can build on that and continue to talk openly and honestly about the most uncomfortable aspects of pregnancy and abortion, we can heal the shame and stigma that have been the most successful weapons of anti-abortion zealots.

A second obstacle is money. There are many extraordinary organizations dedicated to raising funds to assist poor women who have been betrayed by the Hyde Amendment. They can never raise enough to make up for the abandonment of the government, and that has to be fixed. However most people don’t realize that many clinics are themselves in financial distress. Most abortion providers have kept their fees ridiculously and perilously low in order to be within reach of their patients.

Consider this: In 1975 when I had my first job as an abortion counselor, an abortion within the first 12 weeks cost $150. Today an average price for the same abortion is around $550. That is an increase of less than $10 a year! Even in the 15 states that provide funding for abortion, the reimbursement to clinics is so low that providers could go out of business serving those in most need of care.

Over the years a higher percent of the women seeking abortion care are poor women, women of color, and immigrant and undocumented women largely due to the gap in sexual health education and resources. That means that a clinic can’t subsidize care through larger fees for those with more resources. While Hyde must be repealed, perhaps it is also time to invent some new approaches to funding abortion so that the fees can be sustainable.

Women are often very much on their own to find the funds needed for an abortion, and as the time goes by both the costs and the risk to them increases. Since patients bear 100 percent of the medical risk and physical experience of pregnancy, and the lioness’ share of the emotional experience, it makes sense to me that the partner involved be responsible for 100 percent of the cost of an abortion. And why not codify this into law, just as paternal responsibilities have been? Perhaps such laws, coupled with new technology to make DNA testing as quick and inexpensive as pregnancy testing, would shift the balance of responsibility so that men would be responsible for paying abortion fees, and exercise care as to when and where they release their sperm!

In spite of the millions of women who have chosen abortion through the ages, many women still feel alone. I wonder if it could make a difference if women having abortions, including those who received assistance from abortion funds, were asked to “pay it forward”—to give something in the future if they can, to help another woman? What if they also wrote a letter—not a bread-and-butter “thank you” note—but a letter of love and support to a woman connected to them by the web of this individual, intimate, yet universal experience? This certainly wouldn’t solve the economic crisis, but it could help transform some women’s experience of isolation and shame.

One in three women will have an abortion, yet many are still afraid to talk about it. Now that there is safe medication for abortion, more and more women will be accessing abortion through the internet in some DIY fashion. What if we could teach everyone how to be excellent abortion counselors—give them accurate information; teach them to listen with nonjudgmental compassion, and to help women look deeper into their own feelings and beliefs so that they can come to a sense of confidence and resolution about their decision before they have an abortion?

There are so many brilliant, caring, and amazing people who provide abortion care—and room for many more to establish new clinics where they are needed. When we turn our sights to what can be, there is no limit to what we can create.

Being frustrated and helpless is exhausting and can burn us out. So here’s a glass of champagne to being able to dream again, and to dreaming big. From my own past clinic work:

At this clinic we do sacred work
That honors women
And the circle of life and death.