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One of the hottest seats in corporate America has a new occupant. In July, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. named Thomas Hyde executive vice president and senior general counsel. He takes over just as the embattled retailer faces one of its toughest battles — a high-profile sexual discrimination case that could involve 500,000 plaintiffs. After a yearlong investigation, a nationwide consortium of lawyers and public interest law firms filed a complaint in California federal court alleging that Wal-Mart pays female workers less than male employees, passes women over for promotion, and creates a demeaning work environment. It’s not as though Wal-Mart litigators haven’t been busy already. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed 16 suits against the company for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act since that statute was enacted in 1990 — the most brought against any company. The latest, filed in late June, alleges that Wal-Mart failed to make a “reasonable accommodation” by allowing a store “greeter” with bad knees to occasionally sit while doing her job. Unhappy employees aren’t Wal-Mart’s only problem. The company has angered judges across the country with what those jurists describe as obstructive, and at times dishonest, discovery practices in cases involving customer injuries, including sexual assaults, on store premises. Hyde says he’s on the case. While declining to be interviewed for this article, he issued a statement to Corporate Counsel, saying, “We’re taking the steps necessary to improve our performance. We now have a special discovery unit, headed by a senior attorney, that is responsible for making sure that we meet our obligations.” The company also hired the law firm Jones Day Reavis & Pogue to review the retailer’s discovery practices. One of the attorneys at Jones Day working on Wal-Mart matters is Jeffrey Sutton, who was recently nominated by George W. Bush for a seat on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; ironically, his nomination is under attack in some quarters as a threat to the rights of the disabled because of prior statements on behalf of other clients calling the ADA unconstitutional. Before joining the Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, Hyde was general counsel of Raytheon Company, the Lexington, Mass.-based defense contractor. He’s likely to find his new job a little more exciting. Raytheon essentially has only one client — the U.S. government. Most of Raytheon’s litigation takes place in various administrative agencies or in the U.S. Court of Claims, while Wal-Mart has been sued in virtually every jurisdiction in the country. And because Raytheon needs to maintain a continuing relationship with the government, “there tends not to be a lot of animosity” in the disputes, as Hyde told The National Law Journal last year. Before Hyde’s appointment, the top-ranking lawyer at Wal-Mart was Robert Rhoads. Rhoads will stay on at Wal-Mart, retaining the titles of senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. According to a Wal-Mart spokesman, Rhoads will have “no change in role or responsibility.” Neither Rhoads nor Hyde would comment on their respective duties. Hyde’s ability to help turn around a corporation as big as Wal-Mart may be untested. But at least one party is looking forward to seeing Hyde take on his new job. A few weeks after the announcement of Hyde’s appointment, the EEOC issued a statement noting its “serious concerns about Wal-Mart’s compliance with federal civil rights laws” and its hope that “the arrival of a new general counsel signals a serious commitment on Wal-Mart’s part to address these concerns.” Maybe Thomas Hyde’s defense contractor expertise in dealing with the feds will come in handy, after all.

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