$5.8 Million Awarded in Class Action Wage and Hour Claim

Just this Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court upheld a $5.8 million award in a class action lawsuit against Tyson Foods, Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo. Court-watchers across the country are hailing the decision as a “setback to corporate America” (The Los Angeles Times), and a boon for employees’ seeking justice.
Employees at Tyson Foods meat packing filed a lawsuit in 2007, forming a class action lawsuit and alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). They claimed that they did not receive the wages they were owed, specifically that they were not paid overtime for the time they spent putting on and taking off their protective gear. The challenge, and reason for the Supreme Court’s review, was that Tyson Foods never kept track of the amount of time that these employees actually spent completing these duties. Therefore, when the employees brought their lawsuit, they had no other option but to use what they called “representative evidence” in order to demonstrate the amount of wages they were owed.
Essentially, the Plaintiffs in this class action lawsuit were attempting to use employee testimony, video recordings, and crucially, an expert study to demonstrate the average time each employee spent applying and removing their protective gear. Tyson Foods, the Defendant employer, argued that the time required to put on and take off the required protective gear was, in all likelihood, different for each employee. Further, Tyson Foods argued that allocating a standard, or average amount of overtime to each employee would not take into account that some of the employees did not work a sufficient amount of time to be entitled to overtime pay. This was an attempt to destroy the class status, and prevent the suit from being brought as a class action. Tyson Foods was pointing out that there were differences between the individuals making up the class of employees, and that the use of statistical evidence would not allow it to defend against non-conforming class-members.
The Court did not side with Tyson’s argument. Justice Kennedy drew a clear distinction between the present case and that which Tyson Foods relied on, Wal-Mart Stores, Inv. v. Dukes. Since its decision in 2011, Wal-Mart has been cited to prevent class certification for wage and hour claims by employees who seek to use representative evidence at trial. Justice Kennedy made clear that “Wal-Mart does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing class-wide liability.”
Instead, the Court held that statistical evidence could be introduced and used to make what amounts to an educated guess about the amount of time Tyson Foods employees spent dealing with protective gear. 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 action 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.”
Though it did not issue a blanket rule forbidding statistical evidence, as Tyson Foods had hoped, the Court also stopped short of allowing statistical evidence to be admitted in all class actions. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted that the opinion “is not to say that all inferences drawn from representative evidence in an FLSA case are ‘just and reasonable.’ Representative evidence that is statistically inadequate or based on implausible assumptions could not lead to a fair or accurate estimate of the uncompensated hours an employee has worked… Whether a representative sample may be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the sample is being introduced and on the underlying cause of the action.”
Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo has saved class action wage and hour lawsuits, for the time being. As it was being heard, many feared that it would be decided in favor of the Defendant, effectively preventing the use of representative evidence to certify or maintain class status. However, wage and hour class action litigation has been revitalized, and perhaps has never looked into a brighter future.
If you believe that you, or one of your co-workers may have suffered an employment law violation related to employee rights, the FLSA, wage and hour provisions, a hostile workplace environment, age or even disability discrimination, prompt action to preserve your rights is absolutely vital. At Stephen Danz & Associates, we have the knowledge and experience in the employment law arena do assess and optimize your individual, or class action claim. Contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Stephen Danz & Associates for a free consultation to discuss your circumstances and legal options.