The Supreme Court hears arguments today on a sex discrimination suit against Wal-Mart, which could be wind up being the largest in United States history.The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs says the mega-retailer is essentially saying it's "too big" to be sued. Wal-Mart says it simply doesn't discriminate against women.
The justices will decide if the suit should go forward. If that happens, 500,000 to more than 1.5 million current and former female employees could be included. And if they win, Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest employer, would be forced to pay billions, reports CBS News Chief Legal Correspondent Jan Crawford.
The suit was initially filed in 2001 by a small group of women who claim they were denied promotions and didn't make as much money as their male co-workers.
It all started, says Crawford, when Betty Dukes complained that Wal-Mart was giving men bigger salaries and better promotions than women.
Dukes has said, "It was very disheartening to know that you could barely put food on your table. You know there is no position there's no opportunities for you to move ahead."
Dukes was hired in 1994 as a cashier at a Wal-Mart in California. She says she repeatedly saw less-experienced male co-workers beat her out for jobs or get more money for doing the same work. So she and six other women sued Wal-Mart for sex discrimination.
Then, says Crawford, the women's lawyers upped the ante. They said the complaints stemmed from a company-wide system of discrimination against women, so they asked to turn the case into a massive class-action lawsuit involving upwards of a million current and former female employees.
Jocelyn Larkin, a lawyer for the women, said, "Just one woman suing Wal-mart cannot possibly have the resources and make the difference that having women stand together can. When the women stand together, you can see the patterns of discrimination that are holding so many of them back."
Wal-Mart insists it doesn't discriminate and that these women don't represent all the other female employees working in 3,400 stores across the country.
Wal-Mart claims the class-action suit would just be too big, Crawford added on "The Early Show."
"Remember, it's not an issue at this point whether or not Wal-Mart actually discriminated," Crawford explained. "All the Supreme Court will be deciding is whether these women can come together as a group and take Wal-Mart into court."
On "The Early Show" Tuesday, Christine Kwapnoski, a plaintiff in the suit, told co-anchor Erica Hill she was discriminated against for both promotions and wages.
She explained, "I trained many, many men over the years that managed to get into management and you know, I asked how I was supposed to do it, and I never had a solid answer of how I was supposed to get promoted."
But Wal-Mart says it's had a history of providing advancement for women at the company.
Gisel Ruiz, the giant retailer's executive vice president of human resources, told Hill, "In 2001, we looked at our numbers and two-thirds of the associates that were represented were women. And in fact, two-thirds of our managers were women, also. Last year alone, of the hourly associates that were promoted, over 55 percent of those promotions were women."
Hill said, "So you're saying you don't see that discrepancy. What about at an executive level?"
Ruiz replied, "I'll talk about my personal experience first. Wal-Mart has strong policies against discrimination and they have been in place long before the lawsuit was filed. We have a long history of providing advancement opportunities for women. I started with the company in 1992 and in less than four year, I was selected to be a store manager and I'm standing here today as the executive vice president over human resources. My story is not unique. I represent thousands of women who have very positive experiences at Wal-Mart."
But Brad Seligman, the lead attorney for the women suing Wal-Mart, disputed Ruiz's numbers, saying, "It is flat out untrue that women hold two-thirds of the management jobs. She's talking about hourly supervisor jobs. The salary management jobs - the gold ring at this company - are two-thirds male. One out of seven managers is a female at Wal-Mart. But more importantly, Wal-Mart's own records show there is not thousands of stories. There is one story at Wal-Mart: In every one of Wal-Mart's 41 regions, women get paid less than men in every single job - even though they have more seniority and they're better performers. That's what the record shows."
He continued, "Wal-Mart's argument is that it's too big to sue, that no matter how much discrimination there is, because it's a big company, it gets to go off scott-free."
But what happens if the Supreme Court decides the class-action lawsuit cannot go forward? What's next for these women? Can they fight the company individually?