Wal-Mart v. Dukes, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, could derail a class action race discrimination case against the State of Iowa that has been pending since 2007 (See our posts here and here on the Wal-Mart case). The Iowa case involves 32 named plaintiffs who claim the State maintained hiring and promotion practices that discriminated against African American applicants and employees. The suit was certified as a class action in 2010 to include class all African Americans who sought appointment to or held a merit based position in the Executive branch since July 1, 2003. The class claims could potentially involve up to 6,000 persons in addition to the named plaintiffs.
The court held a hearing last week concerning the potential application of the Dukes case. The holding in Dukes that potentially applies to the Iowa case involves the question of “commonality”. That is, are the circumstances of the class members sufficiently common that their discrimination claims can be addressed as a group rather than individually. In Dukes, the Court held that claims of 1.6 million female employees alleging gender discrimination at thousands of Wal-Mart stores across the United States could not, as a practical matter, be adjudicated as a class. The essential question in a discrimination claim—“why was I disfavored”-involved too many individual circumstances.
According to coverage of the hearing in the Des Moines Register, the Iowa Plaintiffs are trying to overcome the Dukes decision by showing the State of Iowa’s hiring and promotion practices were centralized and applied to each African American applicant and employee. At Wal-Mart, on the other hand, the evidence showed the hiring and promotion decisions occurred at the store level and therefore were highly decentralized. The Plaintiffs’ evidence against the State of Iowa relies to a great extent on statistics purporting to show African Americans were less likely to survive an initial round of applicant screening, less likely to be interviewed, and less likely to be hired.
Another important difference in the Iowa case is that it is pending in Iowa state court rather than federal court. Although similar, Iowa courts and federal courts have two different sets of rules governing these types of proceedings.
The Dukes case is a powerful weapon for employers defending class actions, and it will be interesting to see whether it will allow the State to avoid a trial in this case.