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    Judge OKs Class Action Status for Wal-Mart Gender Discrimination Suit

    BENTONVILLE, Ark. - A federal judge has granted class action status in a sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, which will become the largest civil rights class action ever filed against a U.S. private employer.

    BENTONVILLE, Ark. - A federal judge has granted class action status in a sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, which will become the largest civil rights class action ever filed against a U.S. private employer.

    The lawsuit, filed three years ago by six current and former Wal-Mart employees, alleges that the world's largest retailer systematically denies promotion and equal pay to female employees. The case includes more than 1.6 million current and former female U.S. employees of Wal-Mart, which includes its conventional discount units, supercenters, neighborhood stores, and Sam's Clubs.

    Wal-Mart says it intends to appeal the case, details of which are expected to be released today in San Francisco, that will be presided over by U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins. In anticipation of the ruling, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams told the AP that the company is confident that it doesn't discriminate against women.

    "Let's keep in mind that today's ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case," Williams said, noting that the judge's ruling "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 appeal."

    The ruling comes after months of hearings over whether a complaint brought by six women working in Wal-Mart's California stores should represent 1.6 million current and former workers against the retailing giant. Lawyers for the original plaintiffs have argued that the case should be broadened to cover virtually all of the company's female employees dating back to 1998.

    In other Wal-Mart news, the chain says customers can immediately begin using their MasterCard signature debit cards for the first time since February, when Wal-Mart abandoned their usage in a disagreement over fees charged to merchants. The move made Wal-Mart the first major retailer to take such action since a lawsuit settlement freed merchants to pick which credit- and debit-card services to use.

    According to published reports, the company wouldn't discuss specific terms of the agreement, including whether Mastercard had lowered its rates to win back Wal-Mart's business.

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