SAN FRANCISCO — A sharply divided federal appeals court yesterday exposed Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to billions of dollars in legal damages when it ruled a massive class-action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination over pay for female workers can go to trial. In its 6-to-5 ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the world's largest private employer will have to face allegations that it pays women less than men for the same jobs and that female employees receive fewer promotions and have to wait longer for those promotions than their male counterparts.
The retailer has fiercely fought the lawsuit since it was first filed by six women in federal court in San Francisco in 2001 and said it would appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court.
The ruling "opens up every company in America that has employees to class actions like this,'' said Theodore Boutrous, the company's lead lawyer on the largest gender bias class-action lawsuit in US history.
The appeals court upheld a lower court ruling allowing the lawsuit to go forward as a class-action suit, which lawyers for the Wal-Mart employees said involves more than 1 million women. Wal-Mart asserts that fewer than 500,000 women are covered by yesterday's decision.
Either way, the company could lose billions of dollars if it is found liable and required to fork over back pay to the affected women.
The appeals court ordered US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco to determine the appropriateness of punitive damages and whether former employees at the time of the 2001 filing of the lawsuit should be part of the class action.
Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million in the United States and 2.1 million workers in 8,000 stores worldwide.