Tyson Foods Update

24 March 2016

Supreme Court Upholds Tyson Foods Class Action

By Allison Torres Burtka

At the beginning of the workday, some workers do not simply arrive and start working. Workers at the Tyson Foods, Inc., plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, first must put on protective and sanitation gear that is necessary for the tasks they are performing that day. The time they spent donning and doffing that gear is at the center of a case that the Supreme Court decided on March 22.

The workers argued that Tyson failed to pay them overtime for this donning and doffing time, which violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Iowa state law. The plaintiffs filed their lawsuit as a collective action under the FLSA and as a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Tyson argued that the plaintiffs should not be allowed to use the class mechanism. A jury found in the workers’ favor and awarded them damages. Tyson appealed, the appellate court affirmed, and then the Supreme Court affirmed, siding with the workers 6-2.

“The Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the corporate defense bar to limit the ability of individual workers to join together and sue as a group. Class actions are crucial to enforce individuals’ rights,” said Public Citizen Litigation Group Staff Attorney Scott Michelman, who represents the plaintiffs. “Often, if a corporation deprives many workers or consumers of amounts that are small individually, no individual plaintiff will have a claim large enough to enable the person to obtain counsel to pursue it,” he explained.

Tyson did not keep track of each individual worker’s donning and doffing time, so the plaintiffs used representative proof—including an expert’s time study—to show how much time they spent. Tyson argued that such representative proof is insufficient. (More background information on the case, Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, can be found in this article.)

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted that Tyson “and various of its amici maintain that the Court should announce a broad rule against the use in class actions of what the parties call representative evidence. A categorical exclusion of that sort, however, would make little sense.” He added, “In many cases, a representative sample is ‘the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data’ establishing a defendant’s liability.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Thomas wrote that the majority “puts employers to an untenable choice. They must either track any time that might be the subject of an innovative lawsuit, or they must defend class actions against representative evidence that unfairly homogenizes an individual issue.”

The Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes limited plaintiffs’ ability to use class actions. But the Court’s decision in the Tyson case says that “there are limits to Wal-Mart, too. It doesn’t bar all types of aggregate proof,” Michelman said. “When plaintiffs sue as a class, they get to use all the legal rules that they are entitled to use if they sued as individuals.”

Kennedy wrote that Tyson’s reliance on Wal-Mart “is misplaced. Wal-Mart does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing class-wide liability.”

Aside from representative proof, another issue in the case was class members whose hours did not qualify for overtime. “As petitioner and its amicistress, the question whether uninjured class members may recover is one of great importance,” Kennedy wrote. “It is not, however, a question yet fairly presented by this case, because the damages award has not yet been disbursed, nor does the record indicate how it will be disbursed.”

“The decision not only points out the limits of Wal-Mart and rejects attempts to restrict the use of class actions; it also specifically affirms the ability of workers to use representative proof when their employers failed to keep adequate records,” Michelman said. “It says that employers can’t hide behind their failure to keep legally required records in order to defend their failure to pay their workers legally required wages.”