Two legal cases I’m just now catching up to (shame on me): the discrimination class-action lawsuit against WalMart, and the Missouri legislature’s efforts to weaken whistleblower protection laws.
“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, and 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 that 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.
“Litigation brought by individuals under Title VII is just too costly,” Coffee said. “It’s either class action or nothing.”
“When legislators or lobbyists talk about a bill in the Missouri General Assembly that would weaken protection for whistleblowers, they often call it the “Enterprise bill.”
“The reason is that Enterprise Rent-a-Car of Clayton has made it a top legislative priority for the past five years, ever since the firm lost a whistleblower lawsuit filed by its fired corporate comptroller, Thomas P. Dunn.
“The Senate-passed version of the whistleblower provision is expected to come up in the House soon after the members return from recess. The bill would remove whistleblower protection from an employee who warned a company it was about to violate a law. Under the bill, whistleblower protection would kick in only after the company had actually violated the law. So a whistleblower would not be protected while trying to prevent illegal conduct.
“Why would anyone want to wait until a nuclear plant melts down or Deepwater Horizon blows up before extending protection to a whistleblower who could prevent a disaster like that?” asked Matthew Ghio, one of the lawyers who represented Dunn. “Dunn blew the whistle (at Enterprise) before any of the accounting scandals at Enron or WorldCom that involved Arthur Andersen. There still would be an Arthur Andersen today if Tom had worked there.”