Women launch new legal salvo against Wal-Mart

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Oct 27, 2011 4:09pm EDT

A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago September 21, 2011.  REUTERS/Jim Young

A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago September 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Women pursuing discrimination claims against Wal-Mart Stores Inc filed a reformulated lawsuit against the world's largest retailer, their first since a massive nationwide class action collapsed earlier this year.

The amended lawsuit announced on Thursday confines its allegations to women workers in California, saying Wal-Mart systematically treats them unfairly.

Plaintiffs alleging the company denied them pay raises and promotions because of gender bias are regrouping after the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled a class of up to 1.5 million current and former Wal-Mart workers in June.

The California lawsuit is the first in a series of complaints that will be filed in different regions in the next three to six months, plaintiff attorneys said.

"We are beginning with the locales where the evidence of discrimination is strongest," Joseph Sellers, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said at a news briefing.

Sellers declined to say when or where the new cases will be filed.

"I expect that a number of them will be brought in the next three to six months," he added.

Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter said Wal-Mart is a great place for women to work.

"Walmart is not the company the plaintiffs' lawyers say it is," Rossiter said. "Not then. Not now."

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Wal-Mart's argument female employees in different jobs, with different supervisors, at 3,400 stores nationwide do not have enough in common to be lumped together in a single class-action lawsuit.

Plaintiff attorneys had said they would respond with more narrowly tailored lawsuits.

The filing on Thursday in a San Francisco federal court says a proposed class of California plaintiffs exceeds 45,000 women.

"Each plaintiff has worked in Wal-Mart's California regions and has been subjected to the discriminatory policies and practices alleged," the amended lawsuit says.

The plaintiff lawyers said they had new evidence of discriminatory pay and promotion decision.

The lawsuit cites a meeting on January 24, 2004, where then Wal-Mart chief executive Tom Coughlin told district managers that "women tend to be better at information processing," while men are better at focusing on a single objective.

Wal-Mart attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. said the plaintiffs' arguments still rely on the same theories that the Supreme Court repudiated.

"These lawyers seem more intent on alleging classes for their publicity value than their legal virtue," Boutrous said in a statement.

The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is Betty Dukes, Patricia Surgeson, Edith Arana, Deborah Gunter and Christine Kwapnoski, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc, 01-2252.

(Reporting by Dan Levine and Poornima Gupta; editing by Maureen Bavdek and Andre Grenon)

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