Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Local attorney helped
file landmark bias case
against Wal-Mart

Every female in Hawaii who works or has worked for Wal-Mart or its Sam's Club division since December 1998 is now part of a nationwide sex discrimination class-action lawsuit.

The suit alleges that Wal-Mart discriminated against women by paying them less than their male counterparts for comparable work and bypassing them for promotions.

The case will set the standard for how big companies need to follow the law, said Honolulu attorney Merit Bennett, one of a group of attorneys from six law firms who took on Wal-Mart by filing the suit in 2001.

"Wal-Mart has done whatever it wanted to despite what other judges have said in other cases for over 30 years," he said. "It's time they have to comply with the law like everybody else."

Information on the lawsuit is available at

Employees will be notified later when to file their claims but those who have had difficulty with issues involving pay and promotion are urged to register at the Web site as class members so that anecdotal evidence of discrimination can be collected, Bennett said.

He and a former partner started the case in 1999 after Stephanie Odle, a former Wal-Mart manager approached them at their Santa Fe, N.M., law office to report discrimination at a Sam Club's store in Sherman, Texas. The suit goes back to December 1998 when Odle first filed a discrimination claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Wal-Mart spokespeople declined comment on the number of females employees affected by the suit here, saying they are constrained by the pending litigation.

In a statement yesterday, Wal-Mart chief spokeswoman Mona Williams said the ruling "has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case" and that the judge simply said that he believes the case meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action.

Bennett disagreed, saying it has everything to do with the merits. "The judge has to make a threshold decision that there is sufficient evidence to support the contentions of the lawsuit in order to certify the class" and set the case for trial, he said.

Bennett has handled several cases of sexual discrimination against Wal-Mart, including a $2 million verdict in 1996 in Santa Fe.


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