Supreme Court Upholds Class Action Status For Tyson Employees

Marianne Robbins

On March 22, 2016, in Tyson Foods, Inc. vs. Bouaphakeo, 136 S.Ct. 1036, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the class action status for Tyson meat processing employees who sought unpaid wages for donning and doffing protective equipment.  Tyson Foods failed to pay employees for the time required for them to put on and take off protective clothing in the cut, re-trim and kill departments. Tyson also did not keep records of the time employees actually took to perform these duties. So the plaintiffs hired an expert to determine the time required to put on and take off the protective equipment and clothing using a representative sample.

The district court certified employees’ state law claims and certified their Fair Labor Standards Act claims as a collective action.  After trial the jury awarded the class $2.9 million in unpaid wages, but Tyson appealed the judgment claiming that class certification was not proper because class claims were not sufficiently similar, relying on WalMart Stores, Inc. vs. Duke, 564 U.S. 338, 2011 where the Supreme Court reversed class certification.

Justice Kennedy issued the decision of the six justice majority noting that a representative sample is sometimes “the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data” Id. at 1046. In many cases when employers violate their statutory duty to keep proper records, employees have no other way of establishing the time spent doing uncompensated work. Id, at 1047.

The Supreme Court went on to distinguish its decision in WalMart Stores, Inc. vs. Duke.  The Court noted that here, unlike the WalMart case, Tyson employees were similarly situated and could rely on representative evidence establishing the time required for donning and doffing whether they brought individual cases or a class action.  The Court observed that whether representative and statistical evidence can be used, will depend on the purpose for which it is introduced and the underlying cause of action, “the fairness and utility of statistical methods in context other than those presented here will depend on the facts and circumstances particular to those cases.” Id. at 1049.

The Court also rejected Tyson’s argument that a class could not be certified where some members of the class were not injured or do not have a right to any damages.  As the Court observed, there are circumstances in which a class action can be certified in the absence of proof that all class members were injured.  The question of whether some class members were not entitled to damages was one Tyson could address to the district court when it determined dispersal of the jury award.

Although Tyson involved state and federal wage claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), its holding confirmed the continuing viability of class actions using statistical evidence to establish any number of employee claims in employment settings based on the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, the Americans with Disability Act, as amended (ADAAA), or the Age Discrimination Act in Employment Act (ADEA) as well as the FLSA.  The most important consideration remains whether statistics and representative evidence are being used in circumstances where employees as a class face discrimination or denial of wages or benefits under similar circumstances.