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U.S. judge denies class certification sought by women suing Wal-Mart

By Casey Sullivan and Dan Levine

(Reuters) - In another setback for women suing Wal-Mart, a U.S. judge in San Francisco on Friday rejected an attempt to bring reformulated sex discrimination claims against the company as a class action.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer denied a motion for class certification brought by plaintiffs seeking to represent 150,000 women in Wal-Mart's California offices who alleged the world's largest retailer denied them pay raises and promotions because of their gender.

The claims were filed as a reformulated lawsuit after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a larger class-action sex discrimination against Wal-Mart Stores Inc in 2011 that claimed female employees at 3,400 Walmart stores nationwide were underpaid and given fewer promotions.

The California lawsuit was part of a broader strategy by women Wal-Mart workers to bring more narrowly tailored class actions in an attempt to seek damages, targeting Wal-Mart's employment practices in regions throughout the country.

Instead of relying on nationwide statistical patterns and anecdotal evidence provided by plaintiffs, the California lawsuit had alleged specific discriminatory statements made by the district and regional managers that have decision-making authority over pay and promotions.

Breyer said in his ruling that the women could not bring their allegations as a class action because they had not established that their claims of the company's employment practice were linked to a class-wide policy.

But he said: "This order does not consider whether plaintiffs themselves were victims of discrimination as alleged in their complaint; those individual claims shall proceed in this litigation."

Still, Breyer took issue with some of the merits of the plaintiffs case. For one, he said that the women did not identify statistically significant disparities in pay and promotion decisions throughout the California regions at issue.

Breyer also noted that the women said they had anecdotes reflecting stereotyped views expressed by a number of regional managers, but only offered evidence of bias exhibited by about five percent of the top level management that they say guided lower-level decisions.

"Though plaintiffs succeeded in illustrating attitudes of gender bias held by managers at Wal-Mart, they failed to marshal significant proof that intentional discrimination was a general policy affecting the entire class," Breyer said.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said in a statement that the company has had a strong policy against discrimination in place for many years, and that the allegations from the plaintiffs were not representative of the positive experiences of other women working at Wal-Mart.

"Judge Breyer gave the plaintiffs every opportunity to offer any evidence they wanted, and their evidence comes up short," said Theodore Boutrous, a lawyer representing Wal-Mart. "We are gratified."

Randy Renick, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that plaintiffs were "deeply disappointed" with the court's decision and intended to appeal the ruling.

"While this court decision does not in any way negate the merits of the pay and promotion discrimination case against Wal-Mart, it does create yet another hurdle for these women to at long last have their day in court," he said.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Gary Hill, Eric Walsh and Bill Trott)

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