Mo. court upholds class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:45 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SPRINGFIELD— Wal-Mart Stores Inc. won one and lost one Tuesday as state courts in Missouri and New York split on whether worker lawsuits over alleged unpaid wages should be granted class-action status.

A Missouri state appeals court rejected Wal-Mart’s bid to derail a class-action lawsuit by Missouri workers who claimed they were forced by company policy to work after clocking out and during meal and rest breaks.

In New York, the state supreme court ruled in the opposite way, denying class certification for a similar lawsuit. It said each worker’s claim should be handled individually.

Wal-Mart has faced class-action lawsuits alleging unpaid work in several states. Wal-Mart workers in Pennsylvania won a $78.5 million judgment last year for working off the clock and through breaks and a $172 million verdict in a California case. The company is appealing both. Wal-Mart settled a Colorado suit over unpaid wages for $50 million.

Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said the world’s largest retailer is disappointed by the Missouri ruling but that the New York decision follows what he called a growing number of decisions in other states. Simley was not able to provide a number of cases where class-action status was denied.

Wal-Mart’s lawyers have argued in cases such as the ones in Missouri and New York that any unpaid work was a matter of individual circumstances that must be tried case-by-case.

Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals rejected that argument and sent the case back with some procedural modifications to the Jackson County Circuit Court.

Five former workers at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in Missouri alleged in the suit, first filed in 2002, that company policy forced them to work without pay after clocking out and during meal and rest breaks. The circuit court granted class-action status in 2005, covering what plaintiff’s lawyers estimated are about 200,000 current and former Wal-Mart workers in the state.

Steve Long, a lead attorney for the Missouri plaintiffs, said he was “very pleased.”

“The overall story is that the case will proceed now as a class-action,” Long told The Associated Press.

Long said he hoped the case can go to trial in summer 2008.

In New York, the supreme court said the lawsuit was too broad in arguing that all Wal-Mart workers in the state since 1996 were potentially harmed and should be part of a class numbering around 200,000. It said claims of unpaid work would need to be examined individually.

Attorneys for the two Wal-Mart workers named in the New York lawsuit did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

The Missouri case is Celia L. Hale and Gary McDowell, et al., Respondents, v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., et al., Appellants.: WD66162

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