By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc has defeated an appeal by immigrant janitors who accused the world's largest retailer in a lawsuit of unfair labor practices, encouraging illegal immigration and locking them inside stores at night and on weekends.
A panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld rulings in 2010 and 2011 by a New Jersey federal judge that blocked the workers from suing as a class, and rejected their claims that Wal-Mart acquiesced in illegal work conditions.
Gilberto Garcia, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday's decision.
The plaintiffs in the nearly nine-year-old case, first brought in November 2003, included illegal immigrants who worked for contractors and subcontractors the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer hired to clean its stores.
They accused Wal-Mart of trying to clean its stores "on the cheap" by paying contractors it knew hired illegal immigrants, who might be tolerant of lower pay and unfair work conditions. They added they were coerced to work by threats to report their immigration status to authorities.
The plaintiffs said that, while Wal-Mart was not their direct employer, it exercised control over their activity. Often, they said, Wal-Mart locked them inside at nights and on weekends to prevent theft and keep federal agents from finding them.
Writing for a three-judge appeals court panel, Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith upheld rulings in Wal-Mart's favor by U.S. District Judge Garrett Brown in Newark, New Jersey.
The judge said the proposed class of plaintiffs should not be certified, noting they worked in 180 different stores in 33 U.S. states, for 70 different contractors and subcontractors, and for varying hours and wages.
He also found that, while the plaintiffs plausibly alleged a conspiracy to commit money laundering, this did not support a broader allegation that Wal-Mart conspired to harbor illegal immigrants or encourage illegal immigration, in violation of a federal anti-racketeering law.
Finally, the 3rd Circuit rejected the false imprisonment claim, saying Wal-Mart offered evidence that its stores had unobstructed emergency exits.
According to the opinion, Wal-Mart has resolved claims of some individual plaintiffs under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act through a series of settlements.
Randy Hargrove, a Wal-Mart spokesman, in a statement said the retailer is pleased with the decision. "Wal-Mart works to comply with all laws and expects our service providers to do the same," he said.
In June 2011, Wal-Mart was also the winning party in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it harder to pursue class-action lawsuits, and which decertified a class of more than 1 million current and former female workers alleging gender bias.
The case is Zavala et al v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-2381.
(Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Andre Grenon)