Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will urge the Supreme Court next week to reject the largest class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit in history, brought by female employees who seek billions of dollars.

The top U.S. court hears arguments on March 29 in a lawsuit against the world’s largest retailer for allegedly giving women less pay and fewer promotions at 3,400 U.S. stores since late 1998.

Lawyers for the two sides will spar over whether the small group of women who began the lawsuit 10 years ago can represent a huge nationwide class of current and former employees that could total millions of women.

The ruling, expected by late June, could change the legal landscape for workplace class-action lawsuits and affect many cases.

The Wal-Mart lawsuit has produced testimony that managers held business meetings at Hooters restaurants, attended strip clubs and referred to female employees as “girls,” in what plaintiffs lawyers said was a corporate culture rife with stereotypes demeaning to women.

Wal-Mart, founded in 1962, has denied the allegations and said it has operated under a policy barring discrimination.

The retailer said claims involving current and former female workers, hourly employees and salaried managers, and stores across the country are too different to proceed as a single class-action lawsuit.

Lawyer Theodore Boutrous, who will argue for Wal-Mart, said bundling together all the diverse claims is unfair, making it impossible for the company to defend itself.

Trial of the decade

WASHINGTON – The case will have far-reaching implications for working women who challenge discrimination, says women’s rights advocate Marcia Greenberger.

The Wal-Mart case has pitted women’s and employees’ rights against business interests, with Robin Conrad of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calling it “the most important class-action case facing the court in over a decade.”

Large class-action lawsuits make it easier for big groups of plaintiffs to sue corporations and they have yielded huge payouts.