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In what attorneys believe could become the largest sex discrimination class action ever, a group of plaintiffs filed suit Tuesday against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. “Through its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club divisions, it is the industry leader not only in size, but also in its failure to advance its female employees,” read the complaint in Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, 01-2252, filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California. Plaintiffs’ lawyers hope that as many as 700,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees will join the case if the class is certified. Local counsel for the plaintiffs include the nonprofit groups Equal Rights Advocates and The Impact Fund, and the San Francisco law firm of Davis, Cowell & Bowe. It was unknown Tuesday which outside firm Wal-Mart will hire to defend the suit in the Northern District. The suit, which advances its sexual discrimination claim under the theories of disparate impact and systemic disparate treatment, names six former and present female employees from across the country. The women claim that the nation’s largest retailer relegated them to low-paying positions and systematically denied them opportunities to advance into management. According to the complaint, women make up 72 percent of the hourly wage-earning sales associates at Wal-Mart Stores, while men make up 90 percent of all store manager positions. “It’s as if the last 25 years of progress for women never happened at Wal-Mart,” the Impact Fund’s Brad Seligman said at a Tuesday morning press conference at the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square. At the conference three of the plaintiffs — including California plaintiff Betty Dukes, who works in Wal-Mart’s Pittsburgh store — sat before flashing camera lights and told reporters about the frustration they felt working for Wal-Mart. “I learned things as a personnel manager that made it clear to me that it was a normal, acceptable practice at Wal-Mart for management to make promotions and pay increases more difficult for women,” said plaintiff Micki Earwood, an Ohio resident who says she lost her job at Wal-Mart last fall after lodging complaints. Earwood said she routinely sat in on merit raise discussions where managers quoted lower maximum percentage raises to women employees than they did to men. A Web site has been set up to inform and recruit potential class members. Calls to Wal-Mart were not returned, but the company issued a statement saying that women hold 37 percent of all of the 55,000 management positions at Wal-Mart, and that the company is working to bring more qualified women into higher-level positions. Ostensibly in response to the plaintiffs’ claim that the store’s competitors have successfully integrated their management ranks with a greater number of women, the statement warned against such comparisons. “Comparisons of Wal-Mart with other companies need to be made carefully because there are significant differences in how companies classify ‘management’ positions,” the statement read. Frank Janecek Jr., a partner in the San Diego office of the New York plaintiffs’ firm Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, said he suspects the class certification issue will be very heavily litigated. “I’d imagine Wal-Mart would argue strenuously that promotions are going to be individual issues,” he said. “The plaintiffs will say, ‘Look at the policies’ and the defendants will say, ‘Look at each individual’s records.’ “ The suit is asking for the court to order Wal-Mart to stop discrimination, to modernize its personnel policies, and to pay the women in the class their lost earnings.

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