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沃尔玛打赢性别歧视官司的影响

Roger Parloff 2011年06月23日

备受关注的沃尔玛性别歧视集体诉讼案尘埃落定——最高法院判定沃尔玛获胜,而该裁决也将对企业乃至女性员工产生深远影响。

    周一,美国最高法院对杜克斯起诉沃尔玛性别歧视集体诉讼案做出了裁决。作为美国最高法院企业诉讼案件中最大且最为重要的一例,企业方在各个层面无疑均取得了巨大胜利,尽管对女企业家来讲未必如此。

    法院就关键的裁决达成了一致——即大部分寻求经济补偿的集体诉讼和寻求禁令性救济的诉讼性质不同,不能采用宽松的法律程序,因而坚决驳回了美国第九巡回上诉法院的裁决,后者的判决结果与最高法院恰恰相反:杜克斯6票,沃尔玛5票。

    同时,最高法院依据严格的思想路线,以5票对4票裁定,沃尔玛的女性员工不构成集体诉讼。这一裁定影响深远,因为它触及到一个根本性的问题,即150万沃尔玛前任及现任女性职员的共性要达到怎样的程度,才能作为一个集体提出性别歧视的诉讼。

    裁决书由大法官安东尼•斯卡利亚主笔,异议部分由大法官鲁丝•巴德•金斯伯格撰写。

    裁决书重点如下:

    无意识的歧视。原告指控沃尔玛赋予公司管理层过多的权力,付薪、晋升都由各地经理自行决定,导致公司管理层产生了无意识的歧视行为,但多数法官否决了这一指控,认为没有证据表明在整个公司层面存在歧视性的雇用行为。在过去,如好市多(Costco),家得宝(Home Depot)和联邦快递(FedEx)等的类似规模公司以及一些大公司,如奥驰亚集团(Altria),美国银行(Bank of America)和惠普(Hewlett-Packard)也曾遭到类似的起诉,在备案的非当事人意见陈述中,这些公司均表示很容易遭遇类似沃尔玛的诉讼案。

    集体诉讼类别。法院一致认为,该案例,或任何寻求经济赔偿的集体诉讼案例,都不能用使用宽松简单的法律程序保护,因为该法律保护只适用于寻求禁令性或宣告性救济的诉讼案。这一裁决意义深远,绝不仅限于雇佣歧视类案件。

    共性。多数法官认为,原告如果希望有权继续将此案进行下去,就必须表明他们的诉讼具有很高的“共性”。“共性要求原告表明提起集体诉讼的所有成员都受到了相同的伤害,”大法官斯卡利亚写到:“共性并不仅仅是指原告都因被告违反了同一法律条款而遭受伤害。重要的并不是提出相同的“问题”,而是集体诉讼有没有能力给出答案,推动这一诉讼案的判决。”

    个体听证会。法院一致裁定,初级法院为简化裁决流程而在该案中同时接受一百多万名原告诉讼请求的尝试,剥夺了当事人(不仅沃尔玛一家)应享受的法定保护。初级法院受理此案的理论依据是设计精密的电脑模型能够做出裁决,但是从未举行的听证会来确定提起集体的个体成员是否都有权享有赔偿。如大法官斯卡利亚描述的一样,法院一致否定了这种“公式化的审判”。

    法官调查实情的职责。多数法官表示,在裁决把关的职责方面,除了确保集体诉讼的原告存在充分的“共性”外,法官有权对有争议的问题进行调查,然而很多法官都认为这一职责要保留到陪审团作决定的时行使。另外,大部分法官认为在集体诉讼取证阶段,法官也可以把关,确定专家证人是否受到了伪科学的影响。

    受害比率。多数法官指出,虽然在之前的案例中,最高法院曾允许原告提出针对雇主歧视的“模式与实践”化集体诉讼,但当时原告中八分之一的成员都声称受害,而在杜克斯诉沃尔玛一案中,原告只能表明在12,500人中仅有一个受到了不公正待遇。法院表明这种极低的受害比率不足以立案。虽然大部分法官坚持认为该数据(1/8)不会是“模式与实践”化集体诉讼立案的统计学标准,但是最高法院引用该受害率明显就是为了鼓励初级法院的法官们今后进行类似的推理,初级法院的法官们急需这种明确的经验法则。

    基本案情回顾:2004年,旧金山联邦法官允许六名沃尔玛女性员工代表自1998年12月26日以来在美国近3,400多家沃尔玛门店工作过的近150万名女性员工起诉沃尔玛。指控沃尔玛在工资和晋升方面存在性别歧视。(如果该诉讼案获得立案许可,其规模将远超本法庭所述——因为,目前沃尔玛在全国有4,300家门店——本法庭引用的数据是初级法院2004年取证时所作的记录,这一数据在当时是准确的。)2010年04月,第九巡回上诉法院对集体诉讼数据进行了微调,但总体上同意初级法院的判决。

    原告声称,沃尔玛允许各自的门店经理们任凭主观标准决定员工工资和晋升。因此,这些经理们(多半为男性)在职业晋升方面无意识地倾向于选择自己的同类(如其他男性)。门店经理们在员工工资和晋升方面的决策表现出持续的统计学上的性别差异,但沃尔玛未能遏制这一现象,久而久之就等同于公司层面的有意识的性别歧视。

    因为沃尔玛的工资和晋升决定都是由各自门店经理一人做出,那么一个很明显的问题就是,从小部分门店经理滥用权利的行为是否能够推断出所有沃尔玛门店都存在类似行为。作为回应,原告辩称,沃尔玛强大的公司文化使得门店经理都在无意识地滥用权利。

    在三月举行的口头辩论中,大法官斯卡利亚曾抗议说,原告的辩词令人感到困惑。他评论说:“一方面,原告说问题是 [经理们的决定]是完全主观的,另一方面原告又说强大的企业文化引导着这一切。真实情况到底是怎样的呢?”

    在今天的裁决中,斯卡利亚几乎全盘否决了该理论,包括其核心概念,即人事决策的过度主观性可等同于易受集体诉讼赔偿影响的“原则性歧视”。他强调,沃尔玛的组织社会学专家威廉•贝耳俾曾表示自己十分确信沃尔玛容易受歧视的指控,同时贝耳俾承认,他无法确定门店经理所做的雇佣决定有多少是受到了惯常的成见影响——0.5%还是95%?“沃尔玛受到成见影响的决定到底是占0.5%或95%,这是个重要的问题,也是原告共性理论成立的依据,” 斯卡利亚写道。“如果贝耳俾承认他不能回答这个问题,我们就可以完全忽略他的意见了。”

    虽然有些人会认为今天的多数裁决反映了保守派的亲商偏向,但是另一种解释的可能性更大,也就是在这起案件的表面之下隐藏着一个热核性热点问题,虽然它并不在法院要求当事人在庭上谈论的具体技术性问题之列。

    保守派认为,此类诉讼相当于允许使用社会上非常普遍的劳动力数据差距来证明性别(或种族)歧视,而这种数字上的差异很可能只是由复杂纯粹的多元文化原因所造成的。许多保守派人士担心,企业为了避免这类数据差异从而达到避免官司的目的,可能会被迫偷偷实行某种限额,而这种做法是违法的。

    Today's ruling in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination class action -- the largest such suit ever and the most important case on the U.S. Supreme Court's business docket this term -- is a powerful, multipronged victory for business, though not necessarily for businesswomen.

    One key ruling -- that most class actions seeking monetary compensation cannot be brought under lenient procedures that were originally designed for suits seeking only injunctive relief -- was unanimous, sending a sharp rebuke to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had held otherwise by a 6-5 margin.

    At the same time, the more far-reaching rulings in the case, which relate to the more fundamental question of just how much in common a million and a half women must have before than can sue as a class for gender discrimination, were decided along narrow, familiar ideological lines, 5-4.

    Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the partial dissent.

    Here are the headlines:

    Unconscious discrimination. The majority drove a stake -- multiple stakes, really -- through the heart of a very common, powerful genre of employment discrimination class action that revolves around the claim that a company gives its managers excessive discretion in making pay and promotion decisions, allowing those managers to engage in unconscious discrimination. In the past, similar suits have been brought against the likes of Costco (COST), Home Depot (HD), and FedEx (FDX), and a group of other large corporations, including Altria (MO), Bank of America (BAC), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), had filed amicus briefs in which they admitted feeling vulnerable to suits brought on the Wal-Mart (WMT) template.

    Category of class action. The Court unanimously agreed that this case -- and possibly any class action seeking monetary compensation -- cannot be brought (as this one was) using the lenient and minimal procedural safeguards that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require of suits seeking only injunctive or declaratory relief. This is a ruling of broad significance, not confined to the employment discrimination context.

    Commonality. The majority decided that for plaintiffs to win the right to proceed as a class, they must demonstrate a relatively high degree of "commonality" between their claims. "Commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury," Justice Scalia wrote. "This does not mean merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law. . . . What matters . . . is not the raising of common 'questions' . . . but rather the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation."

    Individual hearings. The Court unanimously agreed that the lower courts' attempts to streamline the adjudication process in this case to accommodate the litigation of more than a million claims at once deprived litigants -- not just Wal-Mart, but also absent class members -- of needed statutory safeguards. The lower court had let the case to go forward on the theory that it could be decided based on elaborate computer models, but without hearings ever being held to determine whether individual class members were entitled to relief. The Court unanimously rejected such a "Trial by Formula," as Justice dubbed it.

    The judge's fact-finding role. The majority said that in performing its gatekeeping function in ensuring that classes are composed of plaintiffs whose legal situations share a sufficient minimum degree of "commonality," judges are permitted to make some findings about disputed questions of fact -- a role that many judges had thought had to be reserved for later resolution by a jury. In addition, the majority suggested that judges at the class certification stage can probably also make gatekeeping decisions about whether expert witnesses are engaging in junk science.

    Victimization ratio. The majority noted in passing that while the Court had, in a previous case, permitted plaintiffs to allege a "pattern and practice" of discrimination by an employer where one in eight class members claimed victimization, in the Dukes case the plaintiffs had only demonstrated that one in 12,500 class members had complained of wrongdoing. The court implied that such a sparse showing was insufficient. Though the majority insisted that it was not setting up any new statistical threshold for making "pattern and practice" claims, the Court's citation of these ratios clearly invites such inferences in the future by lower court judges, who crave bright-line rules of thumb of this type.

    To recap the basics, in 2004 a San Francisco federal judge allowed six female Wal-Mart employees to sue on behalf of every one of the nearly 1.5 million female employees who then worked, or had worked, at any of Wal-Mart's 3,400-plus stores nationwide since December 26, 1998. The suit alleged gender discrimination with respect to promotions and pay. (Had the case been allowed to proceed, it would actually have been much bigger than what the Court described -- Wal-Mart now has more than 4,300 stores nationwide, for instance -- but the Court cites statistics that were accurate when the lower court record on class certification was created in 2004.) In April 2010, the Ninth Circuit pared the class very slightly, but generally approved the lower court's ruling.

    The plaintiffs alleged that Wal-Mart allowed individual store managers to make pay and promotion decisions based on excessively subjective criteria. As a consequence, these store managers (who are more often than not men) unconsciously tended to choose people like themselves (i.e., other men) to receive career advancements, it was claimed. Over time, Wal-Mart's failure to curb store-manager discretion in the face of continuing statistical gender disparities in pay and promotion rates was then said to amount to intentional discrimination by the company.

    Since individual store managers made most promotion and pay decisions at Wal-Mart, one obvious question was whether the alleged abuse of discretion by certain store managers at a small percentage of stores could be extrapolated to establish abuse of discretion at all Wal-Mart stores. In response, the plaintiffs argued that Wal-Mart's strong corporate culture led store managers to unconsciously abuse the discretion they were granted in uniform ways.

    At oral argument in March, Justice Scalia had protested that he felt whipsawed by that argument, commenting: "On the one hand, you say the problem is that [the decisions] were utterly subjective, and on the other hand you say there is a strong corporate culture that guides all of this. Well, which is it?"

    In today's ruling he rejected almost every aspect of this theory, including the core notion that excessive subjectivity in personnel decisions could amount to a "general policy of discrimination" susceptible to a class-action remedy. Scalia stressed that while Wal-Mart's expert on organizational sociology, William Bielby, said he believed Wal-Mart's procedures were "vulnerable" to discrimination, Bielby admitted that he could not say whether 0.5% or 95% of store manager employment decisions were actually motivated by improperly stereotyped thinking. "Whether 0.5 percent or 95 percent of the employment decisions at Wal-Mart might be determined by stereotyped thinking is the essential question on which respondents' theory of commonality depends," Scalia wrote. "If Bielby admitted he has no answer to that question, we can safely disregard what he has to say."

    Though some will interpret today's majority ruling as reflecting the conservative majority's pro-business tilt, an alternative explanation is more likely. There was always a thermonuclear issue lurking just beneath the surface of this case, though it was not one of the specific technical issues the Court asked the parties to brief.

    Conservatives view lawsuits like this one as coming very close to permitting gender (or race) discrimination to be proven on the basis of little more than statistical disparities in the workforce that are extremely widespread in our society and which might simply result from a stew of complex, innocent, cultural causes. Many conservatives fear that if employers have to avoid statistical disparities to avoid getting sued, they will feel pressured to adopt secret quotas, which are illegal.

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