On Wednesday, the 7th Circuit reversed a lower court decision and denied class-action status to a lawsuit filed against one of the nation’s largest builders by twelve black construction workers. In their lawsuit, the African-American workers alleged that the Walsh Construction Company discriminated against black construction workers in its employment practices. In March, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow allowed the case to proceed as a class action, however, the 7th Circuit held that in the instant case, the thousands of black employees sought to be represented had too many differences to justify grouping them together in a single suit.
The lawsuit, on behalf of thousands of black employees who had worked at the company’s construction sites in the Chicago area, accused the company of creating a hostile work environment where supervisors regularly used racial epithets and tolerated derogatory graffiti and hangman’s nooses that other workers left in the rest areas. The lawsuit also alleged that the company systematically denied overtime and other work opportunities to black construction workers.
The 7th Circuit decided that just being black construction workers and working for the same employer and being exposed to the same types of discretion did not justify clubbing them together as a class. There were too many differences.
However, the lower court distinguished the case from the precedent of the women’s discrimination case against Wal-Mart, because in her evaluation, in the Wal-Mart case there were actually too many differences to reconcile and recognize a class of 1.5 million workers. But in the instant case, things were more manageable since it involved only 262 construction sites and not the thousands of stores as in the case of Wal-Mart. The lower court judge took into account a previous 7th Circuit decision recognizing a class of 700 black brokers as a class discriminated against by America Corp’s Merrill Lynch Unit. In that case, the 7th Circuit distinguished from the Wal-Mart case because it held that the class of black brokers was more manageable than the millions of female workers in Wal-Mart.
The 7th Circuit observed that the lower court had misread its interpretation of the law and the question was not one of manageability as a class, but whether the workers had enough in common. Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel, “Wal-Mart tells us that local discretion cannot support a company-wide class no matter how cleverly lawyers may try to repackage local variability as uniformity.”