NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Supreme Court certified a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart by employees who claim that the nation's largest retailer denied them meal and rest breaks and forced them to work off the clock.
The Thursday ruling revives the workers' lawsuit, which had been denied class-action status by a trial judge and an appellate panel.
Plaintiff attorney Judith L. Spanier said the class would contain about 80,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees.
Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said the Bentonville, Ark.-based company was disappointed with the ruling and was studying its options.
"It's our policy to pay every associate for every hour that they have worked. Any manager who disregards that is subject to discipline, up to and including termination," Simley said.
Wal-Mart workers in Pennsylvania won a $78.5 million judgment last year for working off the clock and through rest breaks and a $172 million verdict in a California case. The company is appealing both.
Wal-Mart has settled a Colorado suit over unpaid wages for $50 million.
Spanier said she is appealing a decision by an Illinois judge rejecting class-action status for a similar lawsuit.
The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the class should be certified because common questions of law outweigh individual issues, and that the class-action lawsuit is the better method to handle the dispute.
The court rejected an earlier ruling that workers could file a claim with the state Division of Wage Collection at little cost.
The court said that many of the low-wage workers may remain silent because of "legitimate fears concerning employer retaliation, lack of resources, or a sense of powerlessness when confronting their would-be corporate adversary."
"We cannot ignore the reality that if the proposed class is not certified, thousands of aggrieved employees will not seek redress for defendant's alleged wrongdoing," Chief Justice James R. Zazzali wrote for the majority.
Spanier estimated that each worker lost an average of $500 in wages due to Wal-Mart's conduct.
Spanier was part of a legal team that argued for Wal-Mart employees in Pennsylvania, who are now seeking an additional $72 million in damages and interest.
"There is an enormous amount of pressure in Wal-Mart to keep costs down, and the biggest cost in control of a store manager is labor," Spanier said.
Wal-Mart shares rose 48 cents, or 1 percent, to $47.60 Thursday. They have traded from $42.31 to $52.15 over the past year.