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September 22, 2003

Wal-Mart Faces Key Discrimination Hearing

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. faces a pivotal hearing this week in a sex discrimination lawsuit that could become the largest ever and force the world's biggest company to pay female employees hundreds of millions of dollars.

The lawsuit, filed two years ago, accuses the largest U.S. private-sector employer of discriminating against women employees in pay, promotions and training, and retaliating against those who complained about the alleged abuses.

A judge in San Francisco is expected to hear arguments Wednesday on whether to certify a class of plaintiff that could include 1.5 million current and former female employees of the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer.

"The chance of certification is quite high," said Michael Selmi, a law professor at George Washington University, who has studied the effect of major discrimination cases on publicly traded companies.

Wal-Mart employs more than 1 million people in the United States and has been the target of dozens of lawsuits alleging wage-and-hour violations and discrimination.

Critics contend Wal-Mart's corporate culture, handed down from legendary founder Sam Walton, makes it difficult for women to advance. Lawyers for the women who brought the lawsuit said 70% of Wal-Mart's hourly employees are female, but women hold fewer than 15% of store manager positions.

The lawyers allege that female workers have been routinely steered toward positions such as cashier, where there is little chance for promotion. According to court documents, several female employees said they were paid less than men for similar work. When they complained, managers explained that the men had families to support.

From Reuters

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OPEC Holding Steady on Crude Oil Output

Iraq's long-awaited return to the OPEC fold may dominate headlines when the cartel meets this week, but it probably won't have much effect when the organization sets output policy for the next few months.

Sabotage of Iraq's oil pipelines continues to crimp its exports, and earlier fears that Iraq might quickly restore its prewar output and glut the market with crude have all but disappeared.

With Iraq's recovery taking much longer than expected, several members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have said the group should hold production steady for now ahead of the busy winter heating oil season.

OPEC, which supplies about a third of the world's oil, aims to keep the price of its benchmark blend of crudes within $22-$28 a barrel. Although prices were well above this range in August, they slipped $4 a barrel in the last three weeks and stood Friday at $24.90.

The recent price slide could trigger talk of cutting output when OPEC ministers meet Thursday in Vienna.

"Yet to cut back production right now would be very dangerous because winter is coming, and they'd get a lot of pressure from Western governments," said Albert Anton of the New York investment and brokerage firm Carl H. Pforzheimer & Co.

Paul Horsnell, head of Energy Research at Barclays Capital in London, said that prices are still "bang in the middle" of OPEC's targeted range. "It's not any sort of crisis," he said.

OPEC has a daily production ceiling of 25.4 million barrels. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Indonesia all expressed support earlier this month for keeping this limit unchanged.

OPEC is counting on demand to pick up in the fourth quarter as refiners stock up on crude ahead of winter sales of heating oil in the northern hemisphere. The International Energy Agency, a watchdog for major oil importing nations, forecasts that global demand will rise by 2.3 million barrels a day during the last three months of the year.

From Associated Press

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Ex-Smoker Retries Philip Morris Claim

A former smoker whose lawsuit against Philip Morris USA was gutted last month by a Los Angeles jury will retry his remaining claim today.

The jury rejected all but one of 64-year-old Fredric Reller's claims that Philip Morris, a unit of Altria Group Inc., should be held responsible for his inoperable lung cancer and for deceiving him about the dangers of smoking.

The panel deadlocked on a single fraud claim, which lawyers for the tobacco giant asked Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney to dismiss. Chaney ruled that the remaining count would instead be retried. Court officials said the judge would summon 400 people for jury selection beginning today.

A spokesman for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University law school in Boston, which monitors consumer tobacco litigation, said Reller should get a second shot at the tobacco maker.

"You only need one count to go your way to attach significant punitive or compensatory damages," the project's Ed Sweda said. "Stock analysts at the time were saying this was a complete victory for the company and that is not true."

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