Supreme Court rules against Tyson in class action case

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court, in a 6-2 ruling, upheld a lower court ruling that certified a donning and doffing lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc. as a class action and allowed the use of statistical evidence to set damages and liability.

“We respect the judgment of the US. Supreme Court, and are disappointed with the result,” David Van Bebber, Tyson Foods general counsel, said in a statement. “However, we are also heartened by the divided Court’s consideration and analysis of serious issues affecting the sufficiency of proof required to maintain a class action under the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are studying the opinion and, in particular, the issue of whether damages can be lawfully allocated to ensure that uninjured class members do not recover from the jury’s lump sum award.”

Current and former line workers at the Storm Lake processing plant claimed they were not fully paid for time spent donning and doffing protective gear before and after their shifts prior to 2010. The employees won their case in US District Court and were awarded $5.8 million in damages and attorney’s fees.  But Tyson appealed the judgment to the Eighth Circuit, which later upheld the lower court’s ruling.

At issue is the extent to which plaintiffs in the case could use a time study that calculated the average amount of time workers spent donning and doffing their protective gear to set liability and damages. Tyson appealed the Eighth Circuit ruling, arguing the variation in donning doffing times meant the lawsuit should not have been certified as a class action.

“Calling this unfair, petitioner 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,” Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “A categorical exclusion of that sort, however, would make little sense. A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability. Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes—be it a class or individual action—but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.”

Justice Kennedy said the use of statistical evidence could be determined by courts on a case-by-case basis.

Another issue is whether a class action may be certified or maintained…or a collective action certified or maintained under the Fair Labor Standards Act, when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages. In Tyson’s case, the class could include 3,000 workers.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority. Justice Clarence Thomas joined by Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Read the Court’s full opinion here.

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