Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Inside the Walmart suit at the center of Netflix’s ‘Kings of America’



  • A new Netflix series will center on a class-action lawsuit against Walmart claiming widespread sex discrimination.
  • The class was certified by lower courts before it reached the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case in a 5-4 decision. 
  • Netflix describes the new series, called “Kings of America,” as the story of “three powerful women whose lives were inextricably intertwined with the world’s largest company: a Walmart heiress, a maverick executive, and a longtime Walmart saleswoman and preacher who dared to fight against the retail giant in the biggest class-action lawsuit in US history.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Netflix is turning a landmark lawsuit against Walmart into a limited series starring Amy Adams. 

The lawsuit, filed in 2001, claimed that Walmart systematically underpaid and under-promoted women in its thousands of stores across the US. It sought to certify a class of 1.5 million female employees, making it one of the biggest class-action lawsuits in US history.

The class was certified by lower courts before it reached the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case in a 5-4 decision. 

Netflix describes the new series, called “Kings of America,” as the story of “three powerful women whose lives were inextricably intertwined with the world’s largest company: a Walmart heiress, a maverick executive, and a longtime Walmart saleswoman and preacher who dared to fight against the retail giant in the biggest class-action lawsuit in US history.”

The Walmart heiress Netflix refers to is likely Alice Walton, who is the only female heir to the Walmart fortune. Walton, a 70-year-old art collector, is worth an estimated $54.4 billion and she ranks ninth on Forbes’ billionaires list. (It’s unclear what relation Alice has to the lawsuit.)  

The person whom Netflix describes as a “longtime saleswoman and preacher,” meanwhile, can be none other than Betty Dukes, the lead plaintiff in the Walmart case, who claimed she was underpaid and disciplined on the basis of her gender. Dukes was earning about $5.50 an hour when she started working for Walmart as a cashier in 1994. 

A New York Times obituary for Dukes, who died in 2017,  said she was “portrayed as the epitome of a low-paid female retail worker taking on a huge multinational corporation.”

The lawsuit led by Dukes alleged widespread discriminatory practices at Walmart, with claims of male managers yelling at female workers, passing over them for promotions, and paying them less than their male counterparts. 

One plaintiff, Christine Kwapnoski, said a male manager “told her to ‘doll up,’ to wear some makeup, and to dress a little better.'” Another plaintiff, Edith Arana, said she approached her manager repeatedly asking for management training but was rejected, she believed, on the basis of gender.

Walmart’s corporate policy at the time forbid sex discrimination. Pay and promotion decisions were left up to the discrepancy of store managers.

In the 2011 Supreme Court decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the lawsuit did not provide enough evidence that every plaintiff had suffered discrimination in the same way. 

“Without 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,” he wrote. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or gender — “can be violated in many ways — by intentional discrimination, or by hiring and promotion criteria that result in disparate impact, and by the use of these practices on the part of many different superiors in a single company,” Scalia wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “the plaintiffs’ evidence, including class members’ tales of their own experiences, suggests that gender bias suffused Walmart’s company culture.”

“Among illustrations, senior management often refer to female associates as ‘little Janie Qs,'” she continued. “One manager told an employee that ‘[m]en are here to make a career and women aren’t.'”

Ginsburg also cited a statistic showing that, at the time the suit was filed, women filled 70% of hourly jobs in Walmart stores but made up only 33% percent of management employees.

Netflix said Amy Adams will star as one of the lead women in the series and executive produce. Adam McKay, the producer of HBO series Succession, will direct the first episode.



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