A federal judge allowed a sex discrimination suit against retail powerhouse Wal-Mart to go forward as a class action, the biggest such case in US history, documents showed Tuesday.
The case covers about 1.6 million women, including current and former employees at Wal-Mart, which is the largest private employer in the United States and world's biggest retail company.
In his ruling, Judge Martin Jenkins of US District Court in San Francisco said the class can seek punitive damages in the case, which alleges women were paid less and given fewer promotions than men.
The judge called the case "historic in nature, dwarfing other employment discrimination cases that came before" the court, and compared it to the Brown versus Board of Education case on school discrimination 50 years earlier.
"This anniversary serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law whenever and by whomever it occurs," the judge wrote.
Wal-Mart chief spokeswoman Mona Williams said the substance of the case has not even come to trial, but that the company would seek to reverse the decision on class-action status.
"Let's keep in mind that today's ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case," Williams said.
"Judge Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action. We strongly disagree with his decision and will seek an appeal."
But plaintiffs called the decision a landmark.
"Wal-Mart has been living in the America of 30 years ago, and those days are over," said Joseph Sellers, a Washington lawyer for the plaintiffs.
"Certification of this class shows that no employer, not even the world's largest employer, is above the law. This decision sets the stage for women at Wal-Mart to get their fair share of pay and promotions which have been denied them for years."
Sellers was among the first to file suit in June 2001 on behalf of a half-dozen women who claimed they were consistently held back from promotions and were paid less than their male counterparts.
The suit prompted an outpouring of claims from women throughout the country, resulting in the largest civil action ever brought against a private company.