WASHINGTON — Christine Kwapnoski hasn't done too badly in nearly 25 years in the Wal-Mart family, making more than $60,000 a year in a job she enjoys most days.
But Kwapnoski says she faced obstacles at Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club stores in both Missouri and California: men making more than women and getting promoted more quickly.
She never heard a supervisor tell a man, as she says one told her, to "doll up" or to "blow the cobwebs off" her makeup.
Once she got over the fear that she might be fired, she joined what has turned into the largest job discrimination lawsuit ever.
The 46-year-old single mother of two is one of the named plaintiffs in a suit that will be argued before the Supreme Court today. At stake is whether the suit can go forward as a class action that could involve 500,000 to 1.6 million women, according to varying estimates, and potentially could cost the world's largest retailer billions of dollars.
But the case's potential importance goes well beyond the Wal-Mart dispute, as evidenced by more than two dozen briefs filed by business interests on Wal-Mart's side, as well as civil rights, consumer and union groups on the other.
The question is crucial to the viability of discrimination claims, which become powerful vehicles to force change when they are presented together instead of individually. Class actions increase pressure on businesses to settle suits because of the cost of defending them and the potential for very large judgments.
Columbia University law professor John Coffee said the high court could bring a virtual end to employment discrimination class actions filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, depending on how it decides the Wal-Mart case.
The company has fought the suit every step of the way because it is the "biggest litigation threat Wal-Mart has ever faced," said Brad Seligman, the California-based lawyer who filed the suit 10 years ago,
But Wal-Mart wants the high court to stop the suit in its tracks. The company argues that the suit includes too many women with too many different positions in its 3,400 stores across the country. Wal-Mart says its policies prohibit discrimination and that most management decisions are made at the store and regional levels, not at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.
Kwapnoski, who works at the Sam's Club in Concord, Calif., said she has seen some changes at Wal-Mart since the suit was filed in 2001. She said she and a lot of other women were promoted into management positions shortly after the suit was filed, although she has had only a couple of pay increases in the years since. She is the assistant manager in her store's groceries and produce sections.
But now, she said, promotions are back to the way they were before, favoring men over women.