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Gender bias, sexual harassment suit vs Goldman Sachs goes forward

In 2010, a group of high-ranking female employees sued Goldman Sachs for gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Their bid to certify the case as a class action hit a snag when the Supreme Court limited class actions in 2011. A judge has now certified the action to address disparate-treatment and disparate-impact discrimination claims.

The lead plaintiff had been a vice president of Goldman's securities division. She and several colleagues say the banking giant operates as a boys' club, which creates a hostile, discriminatory work environment for women. For example, holiday parties tended to feature escorts wearing "short black skirts, strapless tops and Santa hats."

They also alleged that Goldman's policies, although seemingly neutral, tended to work against female employees. This is called a "disparate impact" claim. The class also alleges that Goldman knew that its policies were unfavorable toward women but continued to follow them. When an employer knowingly or intentionally treats one gender differently from the other, it is called a "disparate treatment" claim. The women say that current and former female associates and vice presidents at the bank face systemic discrimination in evaluations, compensation and promotions.

Class action found proper for disparate treatment and impact claims

In the Wal-Mart v. Dukes case in 2011, the Supreme Court severely limited what cases could be certified as class actions. It raised the bar for potential class-action plaintiffs by requiring them to prove their claims were truly similar enough that they could be tried without reference to individual facts.

In this case, a federal judge found that the disparate treatment and impact claims -- those involving Goldman's policies -- were similar in the way the Supreme Court requires.

"It would be nonsensical to disaggregate the claims into hundreds or thousands of individual proceedings," wrote the judge. "Doing so would only waste 'time, effort, and expense' and increase the likelihood of conflicting outcomes for plaintiffs."

However, the question of whether Goldman is a boys' club, where overt gender bias and sexual harassment create a hostile work environment, will have to wait for another day.

According to the judge, the overt discrimination claims would require the court "to make individualized inquiries into each incident of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stereotyping, impunity for male misconduct, and retaliation, to properly consider Goldman Sachs' defenses."

Therefore, each plaintiff will have to file a separate claim against Goldman alleging sexual harassment or other claims based on each individual's experience.

As you can see, there are a number of procedural issues that can arise in a sexual harassment or gender discrimination claim. If you are experiencing bias, misconduct or a hostile work environment, you should discuss your situation with an experienced employment law attorney.

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