Wal-Mart went to the head of the class again this week, when a Western District Appeals Court in Missouri affirmed a lower court ruling that Wal-Mart workers in the Show Me State can bring a class action lawsuit against the retailer for forcing workers to go without meal and rest breaks. These so-called “off the clock” lawsuits charge that Wal-Mart required its employees to clock out — but then stay on the job and work without pay, sometimes cleaning up their department for hours. Wal-Mart is slogging through such cases in as many as 30 states. The company routinely challenges class action cases, because it is far less expensive for Wal-Mart to defend itself against a bunch of unrelated smaller cases — many of which take years to pursue and are dropped by the plaintiffs — than to deal one large class of thousands of plaintiffs. The company routinely argues that it has no company-wide policy regarding off the clock work, and that each store is individually managed, and thus class actions combining many stores under one case are not appropriate. But Wal-Mart has lost major “off the clock” class actions in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The company tells its stockholders, “(We) cannot reasonably estimate the possible loss or range of loss from these lawsuits.” In the Missouri case, the state appeals court rejected Wal-Mart efforts to overturn the class action determination. Wal-Mart claims that class action certification has been denied by the courts in 14 cases. They claim that class action status has been granted in whole or part in 8 cases. Missouri would be the 9th. class action status certified. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Associated Press the company disappointed by the Missouri verdict. This case began in 2002 when 5 Wal-Mart workers in Missouri charged that the company compelled them to work without pay after they had clocking out. Three years later, the Jefferson County Circuit Court ruled in favor of class-action status, and determined that the affected class of workers encompassed as many as 200,000 current and former Missouri workers employed by Wal-Mart. The lawyer for the employees said he hopes the case will come to trial about a year from now.
The retailer had better news in New York, where the state supreme court this week rejected class action status for a similar off the clock case. The New York Supreme Court said the class of roughly 200,000 employees who worked at Wal-Mart over the past decade was overly broad. This will force the New York workers who are suing the company to pursue their cases alone — which will prove costlier, and not attract the same caliber of legal defense that a major stakes class action would attract. Rather than go to court in a class action suit, Wal-Mart will first challenge the class action status, and failing that, settle with the class rather than go through months of an ugly court case. In Colorado, Wal-Mart paid $50 million to settle the class action suit in that state. In California and Pennsylvania, Wal-Mart lost very expensive decisions in court, and is now appealing both verdicts. The judgments in just these two cases came to more than $250 million. In the Pennsylvania case, Wal-Mart was ordered to pay $78 million — but the workers are now seeking to add at least $62 million to that victory, and Wal-Mart is challenging the verdict. In the Missouri decision, the case has now been sent back to the Jefferson County Circuit Court to try as class action litigation. Wal-Mart’s unknown “range of loss” just continues to climb.