Fighting for Women's Equality

Supreme Court Win for Tyson Meat-Processing Workers Bodes Well for Other Class Action Plaintiffs

March 23, 2016 | by

In an important opinion issued yesterday, the United States Supreme Court confirmed that class actions are critical tools for enforcing and vindicating the rights of low-wage and hourly-paid workers, many of whom are women.

The workers in Tyson Foods’ pork processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa have dangerous and difficult jobs. Employees who slaughter hogs and trim and prepare meat for shipment have to wear protective gear to avoid knife cuts and other hazards. In 2007, workers at the Storm Lake plant filed a class action lawsuit under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Iowa law alleging that Tyson illegally failed to pay them overtime. The workers argued that they should have been paid for the time they spent putting on and taking off necessary protective gear, and that if that time was counted, they worked more than forty hours per week.   

Although the FLSA requires employers to keep records of all hours worked, Tyson did not keep any records of the time employees spent putting on and taking off their gear. Because of that failure, the workers had to rely on what is known as “representative evidence.” They introduced testimony from an industrial expert who reviewed and analyzed hundreds of videos of workers putting on and taking off their gear, and used this data to calculate the average and project the total number of minutes per day it took workers in the class to do these tasks. Tyson did not offer any evidence to counter the plaintiffs’ study or seek to disqualify the expert. After a lengthy trial, the workers won, and the jury awarded them $2.9 million in back pay. 

But the workers haven’t seen a dime of those wages yet. Tyson appealed the verdict, arguing that the workers should never have been allowed to proceed as a class because there were too many differences in how long it took individual workers to put on and remove their gear, as well as differences in what kind of gear employees of different departments needed to wear. Numerous business associations filed briefs in the Supreme Court supporting Tyson and its argument that using any kind of representative evidence is tantamount to “trial by formula,” and therefore, under the reasoning of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, should never be allowed in class actions. 

However, in its opinion in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo et al. released on Tuesday, March 23, the Supreme Court decisively rejected Tyson’s argument. The majority opinion, which was authored by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, and joined in part by Justice Alito, clarified that Wal-Mart v. Dukes does not stand for the proposition that statistical evidence can never be used in class actions. The Court pointed out that the reason the workers at Tyson had to rely on representative evidence to establish the amount of time they spent putting on and taking off their gear was because Tyson had failed to keep any records of that time. The Court emphasized that, unlike in Wal-Mart, the workers in this case were doing similar work at the same facility and were injured by the same unlawful policy. Under Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., the Court held that, under these circumstances, representative evidence about the experiences of a subset of workers can be used to prove the extent of liability to all of the workers in the class.

This is an important victory for low-wage workers in the United States, many of whom are women. Where an employer fails to keep records of all hours worked, representative evidence is often the only way employees can establish liability and damages for violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. In rejecting Tyson’s attempt to punish employees for its own violation of its statutory duty to keep proper time records, the Court affirmed the importance of the public policies embodied in the Fair Labor Standards Act and other laws establishing minimum labor standards.   

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