Two Setbacks, One Win for Wal-Mart in Wage Suits

State appellate courts in Missouri and New Mexico on Tuesday upheld decisions to grant class-action status to lawsuits alleging Wal-Mart Stores deprived hourly workers of wages, requiring them to work "off the clock" before or after shifts.

But a trial court judge in New York handed the world's largest retailer a victory, denying class certification to plaintiffs in a similar case.

The cases, among many similar actions throughout the country, alleged Wal-Mart understaffed its stores and required employees to work through their breaks or off the clock without compensation. Only five cases so far, including the two appellate court decisions on Tuesday, have been certified as class action, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers said.

Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said the company was disappointed with the New Mexico and Missouri rulings, but pleased the New York "trial court ruled in Wal-Mart's favor in every element and denied class certification in this case."

Simley said the company was "investigating our options for appeals" in Missouri and New Mexico.

Gerald Bader, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in New Mexico, called the appellate court decisions a "resounding victory" and said he gave those rulings more weight than that of a trial court.

"This device is intended to protect the weak and the powerless against the Wal-Marts of this world," said the lawyer from Bader & Associates, referring to class-action status.

Both appellate courts also asked the lower courts to modify how some classes were defined.

Individual or Class Action?

In New Mexico, the judges asked the lower court to change the class definitions, broadening it to everybody who missed rest breaks and worked off the clock, Bader said.

In Missouri, the court asked for the class to be changed so it would automatically cover more people, said Stephen Long, of Shughart Thomson & Kilroy, who represents the Missouri plaintiffs.

"This has taken a long time but is very favorable and we will now give these people their day in court," Long said.

The New York suit sought class-action status on behalf of about 200,000 current and past hourly New York employees.

State of New York Supreme Court Judge Richard Platkin denied class-action status, saying the issues need "individualized inquiry."

Jonathan Selbin, an attorney with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, who worked on behalf of the New York plaintiffs, said the ruling was disappointing.

"There's some 200,000 relatively low-wage earners who were part of this class and effectively this order means none of these people are going to get their chance to prove their claims," he said.