The massive gender-discrimination suit against


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may lose its class-action status.

An appeals court on Friday agreed to hear a challenge to a lower-court decision made in June. U.S. District Court Judge Martin Jenkins at that time

certified a class of 1.6 million current and former Wal-Mart workers.

The lead plaintiffs in the case have

charged that Wal-Mart systematically discriminated against female employees and managers. Wal-Mart has denied the accusation and has challenged the class certification.

Wal-Mart is "pleased" with the decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said company spokeswoman Amy Campbell.

"We feel we have strong arguments in the case, and we look forward to presenting them," Campbell said.

In addition to agreeing to hear Wal-Mart's appeal, the appeals court also decided to expedite a decision on it.

If the appeals court upholds the lower court's ruling, the case would be the largest civil-rights class-action suit. Given that, it's not surprising that the appeals court chose to review the decision, said Joseph Sellers, who represents the plaintiffs.

"We hoped

the appeals court would deny review, but we recognized that it was likely that they would grant review," said Sellers, who heads the civil-rights practice at Washington, D.C.-based Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll.

But Sellers noted that the district court's decision to certify the class was backed up with some 50 pages of findings. The appeals court will have to take the district court's findings into account in making its decision on the appeal, he said.

"What's important to recognize is that the court of appeals is not going to be deciding the issue on blank slate," he said.

Meanwhile, the case will continue to go forward at the district court level, Sellers said. Wal-Mart has asked for a stay pending the appeal, but the plaintiffs have not responded to that request, and the district court judge has not yet ruled on it, he said.

The decision came out after the bell on Friday. Wal-Mart shares closed regular trading up 75 cents, or 1.4%, to $53.40.