Last week the Des Moines Register reported that the State of Iowa has asked a judge to deny class action treatment of a lawsuit that alleges that the state engages in discriminatory practices. Here’s a link to the story:
The potential class action alleges that the state practices race discrimination in its employment decisions. A class action allows a few plaintiffs to prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of many others who are in a similar position. That eliminates the need to have hundreds, thousands, or, in rare instances, millions of individual claims tying up the courts.
Judges have the discretion to refuse to allow a lawsuit to proceed as a class action. Last week, the State of Iowa argued to the Polk County judge presiding over the case that a new United States Supreme Court decision, Duke v. Walmart, which was decided in June, invalidates the employment discrimination class action against the state.
The Duke v. Walmart class action collapsed because the plaintiffs could not prove a necessary aspect of a class action, i.e., that everyone’s claims were common with the others. As Justice Scalia wrote, “[w]ithout some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question why was I disfavored.” The Duke class action plaintiffs had to prove, and could not, “that Wal-Mart ‘operated under a general policy of discrimination.’ “ Ultimately, the Duke plaintiffs could establish nothing more than that they were all women who worked for Walmart. The Supreme Court concluded that those facts were insufficient to justify a class action: “Because respondents provide no convincing proof of a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy, we have concluded that they have not established the existence of any common question” necessary to justify a class action.
Here’s a link to the full United States Supreme Court decision in Duke: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/10-277.pdf
The State of Iowa now argues that the same deficiencies that sank the Walmart class action are also fatal to the case against Iowa because the plaintiffs cannot identify a common policy or practice that resulted in discrimination. The Polk County judge is currently considering the state’s arguments. As of today, the judge hasn’t ruled, but he has advised the state and the plaintiffs to prepare for trial just the same.
This will be an interesting decision, regardless of which way the judge rules. The judge’s ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. Since the plaintiffs have asserted a violation of federal civil rights law, it is also possible for additional appeals to the United States Supreme Court after the Iowa Supreme Court weighs in on the dispute. Could an Iowa state court class action against the State of Iowa be the United States Supreme Court’s next opportunity to consider these issues?