Betty Dukes, the former Walmart greeter whose closely watched discrimination class action against the retail giant made national headlines and shined a spotlight on pay equity issues, recently passed away at her home in California. Here, Law360 looks back at her legal saga and talks to attorneys about the landmark case's impact.
Dukes, who died on July 10 at age 67, initially filed her sprawling, long-running case against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2001, alleging the retail giant had a policy of management-controlled promotions and raises that led to widespread bias against women. The case landed before the U.S. Supreme Court a decade later, with the justices ruling in June 2011 to overturn the certification of 1.5 million female Walmart employees, which at the time was the largest sex discrimination case in U.S. history.
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Although Dukes' lawsuit couldn't proceed on a classwide basis, numerous regional class actions spun off from the initial nationwide class action following the high court's decision have landed before the Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh circuits over procedural issues. Additionally, at least 2,000 other women across the country have filed U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges and are either awaiting agency action or for those procedural issues to be resolved in federal courts before they launch their own potential lawsuits, according to Joseph Sellers of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, one of the attorneys who represented Dukes.
But while Dukes' case has had plenty of ramifications both legally and in terms of policy, Sellers focused instead on Dukes' "deep sense of justice and fairness" that allowed her to persist in pressing her claims for a decade and a half.
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In looking back at Dukes' life and the impact her case left, Sellers recalled a specific moment in 2011 after the high court issued its ruling against her when Dukes was one of the witnesses at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee looking at the impact of the high court's ruling in her case and other cases on the behavior of businesses.
In particular, Sellers pointed to a lighthearted moment that took place after that hearing, when numerous members of the committee came over to her to ask for a picture with them.
Some senators, in fact, went so far as to ask Dukes to wait until after they came back from casting a vote so they could get their photo, which displayed the fact that her case had become one of consequence, Sellers said.
"Lawyers like to focus on what it's done for recalibrating the standards for class certification ... which is an ongoing process," Sellers said. "But I like to think it has a larger effect on ... showing the importance of treating workers fairly and taking real steps to combat discrimination when it arises."
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