The Obama administration sided with women suing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for discrimination, urging a federal appeals court to let the current and former workers sue as a group and proceed with the biggest sex-bias case in U.S. history.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, weighing in on the lawsuit for the first time since it was filed in 2001, rejected Wal-Mart's argument that as many as 2 million workers shouldn't be allowed to seek back pay and punitive damages as a group because that would violate the company's right to defend itself against each worker's claims before a jury.
That position would prevent the government from ever seeking punitive damages from companies with a pattern of discrimination and interfere with the EEOC's ability to enforce discrimination laws, said Barbara Sloan, an EEOC attorney, in a filing with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. private employer, is accused of paying women less than men and giving them fewer promotions.
The 2001 lawsuit was originally filed in San Francisco by six women seeking to represent other employees.
On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in Wal-Mart's appeal of a judge's ruling that allowed workers to sue as a group and seek back pay and punitive damages. Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., denied discriminating and said it should be allowed to defend the women's claims on a case-by- case basis.
"We believe the EEOC's positions are fundamentally incorrect and look forward to presenting our argument to the court of appeals on Tuesday," said Theodore Boutrous, Wal-Mart's attorney.