When Christine Kwapnoski of Concord, Calif., told her boss at a division of Walmart that she wanted a job promotion, she said, he told her to "blow the cobwebs off your make up" and to "doll up" in order to advance.
Instead, she joined five other female employees and filed a sexual discrimination suit against the company 10 years ago alleging that women had been paid less than men in comparable positions in violation of Title VII, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination.
As word of the suit spread, dozens and dozens of women joined in and a lower court ruled that the case could go forward on behalf of all current and former female employees since 1998.
Kwapnoski will be at the Supreme Court Tuesday when the justices hear arguments on whether the lower court was correct in allowing the women to band together to file their lawsuit, or whether they must file as individuals.
If the court rules in favor of the women and grants them "class certification," it will most likely become the largest employment class-action suit in history, involving potentially millions of women and billions of dollars.
A decision is likely to come in early summer.
Kwapnoski said she would never have been able to file the suit alone against the world's largest corporation. "My voice against Walmart?" Kwapnoski asked. "Are you kidding me. They would sweep me under the carpet real fast. When we band together, then Walmart has to listen to us."
Walmart has dismissed the claims of sex discrimination. Gisel Ruiz, the executive vice president of human resources at the Bentonville, Ark.-based company, said the company has a long history of providing advancement opportunities for women.
"Thousands of women began their careers at Walmart," Ruiz said," and have risen to leadership roles."
Walmart has also argued that the lower court was wrong to allow the women to join together in their lawsuit because they don't satisfy the "commonality requirement" that is required to prove that the women have enough in common to proceed as a class.
Walmart has 3,400 U.S. stores and 170 different job classifications.
The plaintiffs cannot fairly represent "over 1.5 million other women who worked for thousands of different stores with thousands of different managers in multiple states throughout the country," Ruiz said.
The case is being carefully watched by the business community, which fears that it could lead to an increase of similar suits and force big business into premature settlements out of fear of exposure to gigantic monetary awards in the billions of dollars.
The Chamber of Commerce has issued a brief on the side of Walmart, arguing that the lower court ruling that allowed the case to go forward as a class action "will likely encourage an avalanche of new class-action litigation on a broad array of subject matters, beyond employment issues."
But lawyers for the women say such fears of an avalanche are absurd. "The reality is that we haven't even had a few snowflakes" said Joseph Sellers, who will argue on behalf of the women.
The district court heard months of evidence in the case and properly found that the women had met the standards of class certification, he said.
"The Supreme Court and the lower courts have set very demanding standards for class certification," he said.